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Human Population: The elephant in the room

Monday, 2 February 2009 - VIEWPOINT John Feeney

Uncontrolled population growth threatens to undermine efforts to save the planet, warns John Feeney. In this week's Green Room, he calls on the environmental movement to stop running scared of this controversial topic. It's the great taboo of environmentalism: the size and growth of the human population. It has a profound impact on all life on Earth, yet for decades it has been conspicuously absent from public debate.  

Most natural scientists agree our growing numbers and our unchecked impact on the natural environment move us inexorably toward global calamities of unthinkable severity. They agree the need to address population has become desperate. Yet many environmentalists avoid the subject, a few objecting strongly to any focus on our numbers.

Some activists insist acting to influence population growth infringes on human rights; they maintain that it is best to leave the problem alone.  

Let's dispense with this confused notion right now. Yes, there have been past abuses in the name of "population control". There have been abuses of health care and education too, but the idea of reacting by abandoning any of these causes is absurd.  

We can learn from past abuses, reducing the likelihood of fresh problems arising in the future.

In fact, those working on population issues have done so. Today, they recognise that the methods with the best track records of reducing population growth are, by their nature, respectful and promoting of human rights. They include educating girls and women in developing countries to help empower them.

This is achieved by providing more options, using media strategies to make them aware of alternatives regarding family sizes and family planning. Those who oppose talking about the world's population are obstructing the further provision of such services and resources.  

Last chance saloon  

Fundamentally, we need to ask what is the greater threat to human welfare: the possibility that humane efforts to address population growth might be abused, or our ongoing failure to act to prevent hundreds of millions, even billions, dying as a result of global ecological collapse? It's no far fetched possibility. 

Increasingly, environmental scientists insist we have overshot the Earth's carrying capacity. I believe they are right; the proof is everywhere. Our inability to live as we do, at our current numbers, without causing pervasive environmental degradation is the very definition of carrying capacity overshoot.

Overshoot, we know, is followed by population decline. As we have learned form other species, this manifests itself initially with a crash. For humanity, this portends a potential cataclysm exceeding anything in our history.  

Our chance to avert such an outcome depends on our ability to address our numbers before nature reduces them for us. There's no other way out. Merely reducing per capita consumption, for instance, won't do it. After all, per capita consumption levels multiply with population size to determine our total resource consumption. 

Just look at the data from the Global Footprint Network group. They estimate that we'll remain in overshoot unless we also address population. 

Solutions do not spring from silence. We must bring population back to the centre of public discussion. We need to break through the taboo to encourage not just a few voices but all those with relevant expertise to speak out on the subject loudly and often.  

Recently I wondered what would happen if all the scientists - and everyone else considered a scholar of the population issue - spoke out all at once.  

Would it help to weaken the taboo now shackling the subject, pushing it closer to centre stage?  Would it bring the matter enough attention to begin generating new or more widespread solutions?  Might it prompt a deeper examination of our ecological plight?  

The Global Population Speak Out campaign has brought together over 100 voices from 19 countries, all pledging to speak out publicly on the population issue throughout the month of February, 2009.  

Many now recognise the urgency with which we need to halt the human-caused degradation of Earth's natural environment. Can we break down a taboo that has for years blocked the path toward that goal?

Dr John Feeney is an environmental writer based in Boulder, Colorado, US
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

  • U.N.: Fight Warming with Free Condoms

    Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 Associated Press

    (LONDON) — The battle against global warming could be helped if the world slowed population growth by making free condoms and family planning advice more widely available, the U.N. Population Fund said Wednesday.

    The agency did not recommend countries set limits on how many children people should have, but said: "Women with access to reproductive health services ... have lower fertility rates that contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions."  "As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the Earth's capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme and conceivably catastrophic," the report said.

    The world's population will likely rise from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion in 2050, with most of the growth in less developed regions, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations.

    The U.N. Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of the effect that population control would have on climate change. "The linkages between population and climate change are in most cases complex and indirect," the report said. It also said that while there is no doubt that "people cause climate change," the developing world has been responsible for a much smaller share of world's greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.

    Still, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the U.N. Population Fund's executive director, told a news conference in London on Wednesday that global warming could be catastrophic for people in poor countries, particularly women. "We have now reached a point where humanity is approaching the brink of disaster," she said.

    In three weeks, a global conference will be held in Copenhagen aimed at reaching a deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required 37 industrial countries to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

    On Wednesday, one analyst criticized the U.N. Population Fund's pronouncements as alarmist and unhelpful. "It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank. She also questioned earlier efforts by the agency to control the world's population.

    In its 1987 report, the U.N. Population Fund warned that once the global population hit 5 billion, the world "could degenerate into disaster." At the time, the agency said "more vigorous attempts to slow undue population growth" were needed in many countries.

    According to Boin, "Numerous environmental indicators show that with development and economic growth we are able to preserve more natural habitats. There is no causal relationship between population density and poverty."

    In this month's Bulletin, the World Health Organization's journal, two experts also warned about the dangers of linking fertility to climate change. "Using the need to reduce climate change as a justification for curbing the fertility of individual women at best provokes controversy and at worst provides a mandate to suppress individual freedoms," wrote WHO's Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum and Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan.

  • Read: cultivating destruction

    Humans will be extinct in 100 years says eminent scientist 

    June 21, 2010 Lin Edwards  www.physorg.com

    PhysOrg.com) -- Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change.

    Fenner, who is emeritus professor of microbiology at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, said homo sapiens will not be able to survive the population explosion and “unbridled consumption,” and will become extinct, perhaps within a century, along with many other species. United Nations official figures from last year estimate the human population is 6.8 billion, and is predicted to pass seven billion next year.

    Fenner told The Australian he tries not to express his pessimism because people are trying to do something, but keep putting it off. He said he believes the situation is irreversible, and it is too late because the effects we have had on Earth since industrialization (a period now known to scientists unofficially as the Anthropocene) rivals any effects of ice ages or comet impacts.  

    Fenner said that climate change is only at its beginning, but is likely to be the cause of our extinction. “We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said. More people means fewer resources, and Fenner predicts “there will be a lot more wars over food.”

    Easter Island is famous for its massive stone statues. Polynesian people settled there, in what was then a pristine tropical island, around the middle of the first millennium AD. The population grew slowly at first and then exploded. As the population grew the forests were wiped out and all the tree animals became extinct, both with devastating consequences. After about 1600 the civilization began to collapse, and had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century. Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond said the parallels between what happened on Easter Island and what is occurring today on the planet as a whole are “chillingly obvious.”

    While many scientists are also pessimistic, others are more optimistic. Among the latter is a colleague of Professor Fenner, retired professor Stephen Boyden, who said he still hopes awareness of the problems will rise and the required revolutionary changes will be made to achieve ecological sustainability. “While there's a glimmer of hope, it's worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don't have the political will,” Boyden said.

    Fenner, 95, is the author or co-author of 22 books and 290 scientific papers and book chapters. His announcement in 1980 to the World Health Assembly that smallpox had been eradicated is still seen as one of the World Health Organisation’s greatest achievements. He has also been heavily involved in controlling Australia’s feral rabbit population with the myxomatosis virus.

    Professor Fenner has had a lifetime interest in the environment, and from 1973 to 1979 was Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at ANU. He is currently a visiting fellow at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the university, and is a patron of Sustainable Population Australia. He has won numerous awards including the ANZAC Peace Prize, the WHO Medal, and the Albert Einstein World Award of Science. He was awarded an MBE for his work on control of malaria in New Guinea during the Second World War, in which Fenner served in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. 

    Professor Fenner will open the Healthy Climate, Planet and People symposium at the Australian Academy of Science next week.

    October 19, 2010 UN officials from more than 190 nations gathered at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Japan have issued a global warning that the rapid loss of animal and plant species that has characterized the past century must end if humans are to survive.

    Seventeen years after the UNCBD was enacted, it has yet to achieve any major initiative to slow the alarming rate of species extinction and loss of ecosystems despite global goals set in 2002 to make major improvement by this year.

    Scientists estimate that the Earth is losing species 100 to 1,000 times the historical average, upsetting the intricately interconnected natural world. Prominent insect biologist E.O. Wilson at Harvard University argues that a man-made environmental crisis is pushing the Earth toward its sixth big extinction phase, the greatest since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

    6.8 billion humans occupying the Earth and living beyond the planet’s biocapacity! At this rate there will be no future for our race, as experts have previously warned. The tragedy is that our ruthless behaviour and activities are destroying all other life forms and an entire planet before we’re gone.  Homo sapiens? Ha! Human population hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011.

    June 19, 2015 Top Scientist Says Humans Will Be Extinct In Just 100 Years

    Scientists to World Leaders: Tackle Overpopulation, Consumption

    June 21, 2012 (excerpt from the Center for Biological Diversity)

    The United Nations' Rio +20 summit is taking place this week, and even before world leaders' planes touched down in Brazil they'd been sent an urgent message by the world's top scientific institutions: Do something about overpopulation and overconsumption. Ignoring the problem risks "potentially catastrophic implications for human well-being."

    The urging came from the world's 105 scientific academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which called population and consumption "two of the most profound challenges to humanity." The statement echoes a similar one this spring by London's Royal Academy, which included recommendations like support for family planning.

    Comment: We definitely agree that it's encouraging to see scientists raise the profile of this critical issue and urge action by world leaders.