Population Aplomb: Real Ecological Disaster Is In Oprah’s Purse

Dharavi India

Carolyn Lochhead opens her recent sprawling indictment of human population growth as the driver of global environmental destabilization with a raft of Texas-specific statistics. Strung together with hardly a verb or adjective to buffer the cold facts, it imparts an unshakeable sense of despair: “196 endangered or threatened species, severe water shortages, 63 superfund sites, the most carbon emissions of any state and one of the world’s largest ocean “dead zones” off its coast.”

As these are issues I’ve struggled to call attention to with a Fort Worth fanzine in the 1980s and later during more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, she quickly got my attention. But the hard emphasis on breeding fails on several fronts. While our nation’s historically recent flirtations with eugenics (and worse) raises red flags right off the bat, the populationist arguments too quickly forgive what are — at root — our collective failures of compassion and imagination as expressed in contemporary political practice.

Every one of those opening environmental ailments punishing Texas — endangered species, water shortages, toxic pollution, the Gulf’s dead zone — are issues of bad policy, not population. Our power plants and farms are also perfectly capable of producing power and food without trashing the complex ecological systems – our natural commons – that make life possible for us. We have simply allowed the powerful lobbies governing them to get around such pesky considerations. County governments are prohibited by a Texas Legislature controlled by the building lobby from steering development in any meaningful way. A state-sanctioned indifference to all matters of coexistence with virtually all non-human (or, at least, all non-game) species rules here. The result of that failing is to be expected.

Beyond side-stepping a serious policy discussion of bioregional challenges, the population argument moves the conversation of how best to respond to our mounting ecological crisis to a dangerously slippery slope. As the story’s very headline makes clear, the populationist’s environmentalism has become something of a “taboo” topic since Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb was published in 1968 and educated greenies began swearing off reproduction out of solidarity with the planet. What is not explained here is why it became taboo.

Without a doubt, global human population is growing (and likely to plateau around 2060 at 10 billion), but it’s growing mostly among those who emit very little carbon. It’s growing far slower in America and Western Europe among people responsible for the bulk of historic levels of global warming and resource depletion. In other words, race, class, and justice issues are unavoidable.

Unsurprisingly, those at the top end of the economic pyramid tend to point to the poor and population for global destabilization. In 2009, for instance, a secret club of American billionaires gathered to select their philanthropy of the hour. Population control won the day. The group, with membership including David Rockefeller, Jr., Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Oprah Winfrey, according to the The Times (UK), debated education and water systems in developing countries, John Harlow wrote in 2009, but “taking their cue from Gates they agreed that overpopulation was a priority.”

“The ultra-rich, in other words,” columnist George Monbit wrote at the time, “have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise.”

Monbiot continues: “People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers.”

What is true ecological cost of one $38,000 purse anyway?

As David Suzuki wrote in a column about the birth of the planet’s seven billionth person in 2011:

I once asked the great ecologist E.O. Wilson how many people the planet could sustain indefinitely. He responded, “If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million.” North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 per cent of the world’s population, are consuming more than 80 per cent of the world’s resources. We are the major predators and despoilers of the planet, and so we blame the problem on overpopulation. Keep in mind, though, that most environmental devastation is not directly caused by individuals or households, but by corporations driven more by profits than human needs.

While population in Africa and Asia, where 80 percent of the planet’s population is expected to reside by mid-century, is suddenly a top-tier priority, few are talking about the far more ravenous power of consumption.

Not so long ago, a healthy human being consumed 2,500 calories per day. They got this energy solely from their food. Now, as Bill McKibben writes in the essay “A Special Moment in History,” humans consume around 31,000 calories per day, mostly in the form of fossil fuels. Americans, however, consume six times that amount: the equivalent of a sperm whale. “We appear to be the same species, with stomachs of the same size, but we aren’t,” McKibben writes. “It’s as if each of us were trailing a big Macy’s-parade balloon around, feeding it constantly.”

Without a doubt, the population discussion is an important one. The earth has certainly never seen anything like us before. A few hundred thousand hunter-gatherers is one thing, a world choking on hundreds of millions of Macy’s-parade balloons (another billion or so floats of more modest size and the trailing parade itself) is another matter. But it’s not a growth ad infinitum.

One of the world’s preeminent demographers, Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied System Analysis, told Spiegel International in 2011 that it is “highly probable that mankind will begin to shrink by 2060 or 2070.”

“It will be a global turning point,” Spiegel continued. “For the first time since the Black Death raged in the 14th century, the world’s death rate will be higher than its birth rate. A boom in the number of births will be followed by a shrinking population in surprisingly quick succession.”

Many if not the majority of the environmental organizations wrestling with issues of population and consumption, it should be noted, are based in Western Europe and the United States. Lands that experienced their own population booms on the air-clogging coattails of the industrial revolution. The wealth we hold is a direct result of that fossil-fuel-derived population explosion and genocide on a massive scale.

Considering that the vast majority of the carbon in the atmosphere and oceans that has triggered global climate change has come from us – and that a billion of the world’s poorest are expected to lose their livelihoods to desertification this century, desertification manufactured by those now enjoying fossil-fuel-derived affluence — one must ask: Who does the population bomb analysis serve?

I fully support the rights of women and the expansion of family planning at home and abroad. I balk, however, when fingers from culpable nations point across the ocean at those who have had very little to do with our current predicament and scream about limits.

Do the supposed rights of the super-wealthy really trump the daily subsistence needs of the many? At its core, that is what is being proposed by the populationists. Sadly, the American culture of extravagant wealth accumulation – which flaunts super-high-carbon lifestyles and fends off every attempt at regulatory tampering on behalf of public health and security — shows no sign of abating.

Water-policy reform is an urgent matter. As are better farming practices, industrial accountability, and land use. Population scares skirt all of that. And if I harp too long and hard on what is a worthwhile subject for discussion, it’s partly because such important topics are so rarely broached at any length in our local paper. I should say that Lochhead’s urgent tone I support wholeheartedly. The fact that ecological limits and carrying capacities are being discussed is vital. But there is an entire realm of practical – and just – responses that must be explored first and foremost, both in our local governance and in the global balances of power.

We can’t be so politically, intellectually, and morally impoverished that the reproductive habits of others suddenly supplant the discussion of reasonable development decisions here at home. Albeit kicking and screaming, most Americans have come to understand our lifestyles has consequences. What we do with that information now is of upmost importance. Recent history suggests we’ll attempt to blame everyone but ourselves until the last possible minute. Unfortunately, as far as the planet is concerned, that response won’t get us the results we need. And our time is just about up.

Top image: Dharavi, India. Via Wikimedia Commons