Thanks to Eric Rimmer of the Optimum Population Trust for this opinion piece.
Ever since we moved from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled farming – we have been able to produce enough food to expand our population. As early populations swelled, we outgrew one area, then moved to another – or moved from one south-sea island to the next – and extracted all we could from millennia of accumulated bio-capacity, often leaving land that would take many centuries to recover.
The only real brakes on our expansion were famine, disease (often transferred from the animals we had “domesticated”) territorial and religious conflict and adverse climate-change – which together resulted in high death rates and brutally short lives.
It took most of the last ten millennia for us to learn to overcome enough of those limitations by introducing much higher levels of hygiene, developing new medicines and other ways of dealing with disease and injury and – to reap the benefits in terms of greater longevity and, of course, accelerating population growth.
This was accomplished in the face of more and more of us killing each other in massive conflicts. Yet the inevitable Malthusian difference between geometric people growth and arithmetic (though astoundingly successful) growth in food supplies has now led to global population that has tripled in seventy years – and is fair set to add 50% to current totals by mid-century. Imagine the additional conflicts that will produce!
That growth has been almost totally dependent on fossil fuels, not only to provide the traction and fertilizers for modern farming, but also to transport food over increasingly ridiculous distances. Cheap fossil fuels are now ending, and will either price themselves beyond common use and/or simply come to a practical end as the cost of extraction becomes prohibitive.
And if we could find clean and sustainable energy sources to replace fossil fuels – which seems increasingly unlikely – what would that achieve? Isn’t it likely that we would just continue our current profligacy, and destroy yet more of our planet’s natural infrastructure?
Although we developed effective contraception around 50 years ago, it has not been available to, or utilized by, large numbers of people in many parts of the world – where local population doubling is occurring in periods of 20 or 30 years. And in the “developed” world, we each increase our riches and gobble up more and more of limited world resources.
One result has been the fact that, since the mid 1980’s, our total consumption has exceeded overall bio-capacity – and the excess consumption is now above 30%. Not only must we now reduce current population and individual consumption to enable sustainability – it is blindingly obvious that another 50% population increase can only lead to disaster. Moreover, if everyone were to be living in the style of the European Union — a lifestyle that many aspire to — consumption would now exceed bio-capacity by 140%.
Nevertheless we go on compounding the felony. We make increasingly frantic efforts to increase food supplies, but much less determined efforts to increase contraceptive use, and we therefore drive population growth on an expanding scale. We think we are being compassionate by rescuing millions from starvation while ignoring their burgeoning numbers, but we are simply condemning a much larger number of people to the same fate.
In giving aid without requiring receiving governments to make contraceptives readily available and promote smaller families, we are aiding and abetting a crime of monstrous proportions.
One outstanding example is Ethiopia, where Bob Geldorf marshaled an impressive array of pop musicians in 1984-85 to raise millions for food aid. Unfortunately, though Ethiopian population was then 41 million – it is now 82 million – and is racing ahead to 148 million by 2050. And another famine looms on the horizon.
Another example is Afghanistan. We agonize about our aims there – and the terrible sacrifice of so many of our young people – yet we pay little attention to a birth-rate which will increase the current population of 28 million two and a half times to 74 million by 2050. Who believes that Afghanistan will be at all manageable by then?
Our need to avoid giving aid to nations which are failing to make a significant effort to constrain their population growth is an even more difficult subject than population growth in general, yet if we do nothing, we should admit, at least to ourselves, that we are acting to compound the degree of misery that is to come.
One difficulty in any attempt to spread this unpalatable truth is that neither we, nor the USA, are taking adequate steps to stop our own populations expanding.
Even so, we need to get this dilemma firmly on to the discussion agenda.
Eric Rimmer – Population Activist – November 2009
firstname.lastname@example.org – Skype name ericrimmer
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