Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Why Population Matters

The trend is to reduce personal resource consumption. But it's only half the solution and the other half has faded from prominence - that is the need to end population growth. This received a good deal of press in the 1970s, but since then, it's become a taboo subject. Pressure from groups who saw the population issue as a distraction from their preferred causes saw to that. Over a decade ago an article by John Holdren shows us precisely what determines our total energy consumption. It says total energy consumption, equals population size times the average per capita energy use. So if E * total energy use, P * population size, and e * energy use per capita, we can say E * P x e. It means we have little chance of tackling our energy and environmental challenges if we ignore both per capita consumption and population. Today's "ecological footprint" measure is an elaboration of Holdren's equation. The equation above shows comparing population growth to the growth in total energy or resource use is to compare one factor in the equation to the product. In the US, per capita consumption is higher than in developing countries. Holdren's equation tells us it's never wise to ignore either population or per person consumption. With regard to oil use, for example, adding one person to the US population is like adding about 15 in China. Ignoring population growth in the US is perilous. Solutions include programs to reduce unplanned pregnancies, lowering fertility rates to the sub-replacement levels and assistance to Mexico to improve economic opportunities so they're not forced to come to the U.S. to earn a subsistence wage. Consumption levels in the developing world are growing fast, in line with economic growth. Without attention to population, rising per capita consumption multiplied by large and growing populations puts the Third World on a course toward disaster. We can assist with humane programs to hasten lowering fertility rates. Developing countries need to increase girls' educational opportunities and women's economic and health care options. They must increase family planning services and improve child survival rates. Having overshot the earth's capacity to sustain our current numbers, we must act now to avert catastrophe. If we fail to reduce both per capita consumption and to halt the growth of our population no new technology will prevent an unimaginable loss of life.

Our civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas. Mounting population densities, once generated by the addition of over 70 million people per year, are now also fueled by the advance of deserts and the rise in sea level. Expanding deserts are primarily the result of overstocking grasslands and overplowing land. Rising seas result from temperature increases from the burning of fossil fuels. China is losing productive land at an accelerating rate. From 1950 to 1975 China lost an average of 600 square miles to desert each year. By 2000, 1,400 square miles were going to desert annually. Satellite images show two deserts in north-central China expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts--the Taklimakan and Kumtag--are also heading for a merger. Further east, the Gobi Desert is within 150 miles of Beijing. Chinese scientists report that over the last half-century, 24,000 villages in northern and western China were abandoned as they were overrun by drifting sand. Kazakhstan, site of the vast Soviet Virgin Lands Project, has abandoned nearly half of its cropland since 1980. In Afghanistan, with a population of 31 million, the Registan Desert is encroaching on agricultural areas. A UNEP team reports that up to 100 villages have been submerged by windblown dust and sand. In the northwest, sand dunes are moving onto agricultural land, from the loss of stabilizing vegetation due to firewood gathering and overgrazing. Iran, which has 70 million people and 80 million goats and sheep, is losing its battle with the desert. In 2002 sand storms buried 124 villages in the southeastern province forcing their abandonment. Drifting sands had covered grazing areas, starving livestock and depriving villagers of their livelihood. The Sahara Desert is pushing the populations of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria northward toward the Mediterranean. In countries from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia in the east, the demands of growing human and livestock numbers are converting land into desert. Nigeria is losing 1,355 square miles to desertification each year. While Nigeria's human population grew from 33 million in 1950 to 134 million in 2006, its livestock population grew from 6 million to 66 million. The food needs forced the plowing of marginal land and the forage needs of livestock exceeded the carrying capacity of its grasslands. Nigeria's population is being squeezed into an ever-smaller area. In Mexico, the degradation of cropland forces some 700,000 Mexicans off the land each year in search of jobs in nearby cities or in the United States. Rising seas promise to displace greater numbers in the future. During the twentieth century, sea level rose by 6 inches. During this century seas may rise by 4 to 35 inches. Since 2001, record-high temperatures have accelerated ice melting making it likely that the future rise in sea level will be even greater. If the Greenland ice sheet, a mile thick in some places, were to melt entirely it would raise sea level by 23 feet, or 7 meters. A one-meter rise would inundate many of the rice-growing river deltas and floodplains of India, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and China. A one-meter rise in sea level would cause some 30 million Bangladeshis to migrate, internally or to other countries. Hundreds of cities would be at least partly inundated, including London, Alexandria, and Bangkok. More than a third of Shanghai, would be under water. A one-meter rise combined with a 50-year storm surge would leave large portions of Lower Manhattan and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., flooded. If the Greenland ice sheet should melt, it would force the abandonment of thousands of coastal cities and communities. Rising seas and desertification will present the world with an unprecedented flow of environmental refugees and the potential for civil strife. We must deal with rapid population growth, advancing deserts, and rising seas. Growth in the human population is accompanied by a growth of livestock populations of more than 35 million per year. The rising concentrations of carbon dioxide that are destabilizing the earth's climate are driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Reverse these trends or risk being overwhelmed by them.

The Population Reference Bureau's latest projections show that by 2025, Uganda's population will almost double to 56 million, and in 44 years its numbers will grow by nearly as many as China's. In Uganda more than a third of all women say they would like to stop or delay having children, but reproductive health experts say a lack of information and female contraceptives plays a major role. Donors must share in the blame, said the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Donors have shifted their focus to HIV and nobody is talking about it any more. Population is off the development agenda and that's a tragedy for Africa.

The population of the US is projected to reach 300 million by October - a population growth rate comparable to that of China. Because of immigration, the number of people in the US could reach 400 million by 2050. About 76 million people are being added annually. This year's world grain harvest will fall short of consumption by 61 million tons. That's the sixth time in the past seven years that production has failed to satisfy demand. The world carry-over stocks of grain will fall to 57 days of consumption by the end of this year, the shortest buffer since a 56-day-low in 1956 doubled grain prices. Despite continued growth in world food output, the developing world had 815 million hungry people in 2002, 9 million less than in 1990. Population pressure in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere has encouraged the flood of illegal immigrants in the US. Warren Buffett recognized population-related problems in announcing last week plans to donate $37.4 billion of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. stock to several foundations including some he's created that emphasize family planning, abortion rights, environmental and conservation issues, and education for low-income children. Human beings are similar to other animals. As food availability increases, the population will grow. And some animals regulate their fertility if food gets scarce. In the case of humans, there must be recognition that population growth is a function of increases in food availability. Otherwise, increased disease and death rates may ultimately control population growth. Other factors will brake population growth, including environmental changes, resource restraints, and a decline in the quality of life. World oil output is predicted to peak within 15 years. Fresh water in some areas is in short supply. Farmland is being chewed up by suburbia. Global warming will force hundreds of millions of people out of coastal regions in the next century or so. One way to boost the world's food supply would be if people ate more grains and vegetables and less meat, the world could then feed another billion people. The average American consumes 20 times as much in natural resources as the average African and if all the people consumed at the level of high-income countries, the planet could support only 1.8 billion people, not the actual 6.5 billion. It is doubtful if measures to encourage family planning will restrain the world's population. Leaders must come up with intelligent, creative, inventive measures to discourage births. Every 11 seconds another person is added to the US population.

As many as 400 million people are at risk of starvation because of drought and crop failure. Britain will face flooding through increased rainfall and parts of the coastline could be washed away by rising seas. Saving the environment is a top priority. The US has 5% of the world's population but accounts for nearly a quarter of global emissions. Blair and Bush must act now to save the planet for future generations.