To Combat Climate Change We Need to Talk About Population Growth

 


Photo by Tim Mossholder | Unsplash

Photo by Tim Mossholder | Unsplash

In 1798 the world’s population was nearing its first billion when Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and economist, predicted population growth would “outrun the food supply and that humankind’s betterment is impossible without limits on reproduction.”  His ideas, known as Malthusianism, advocated population control.  In response, agricultural and industrial revolutions advanced farm production and general living conditions to levels sufficient to sustain population growth in many areas of the world, eventually suppressing interest in Malthus’s alarm.       

 

By 1974 the world’s population had grown to 3.7 billion, when Henry Kissinger, concerned with U.S. National Security threats, perceived uncontrolled world population growth as destabilizing to developing countries.  If unabated, Kissinger envisioned large-scale social instability, intra-nation civil and political discord as prequels to international level conflicts that would adversely affect the U.S.  Like with Malthus, his call for population growth management went unheeded.  Yet again, science and technology innovation advanced life-sustainment element production, energy, food, water, transportation, among others, to levels sufficient for rising demand. 

Today the world’s population is approximately 7.7 billion, and the United Nations predicts it will reach nearly 9.9 billion by 2050.  However, unlike the eras of Malthus and Kinnsenger, the corresponding increase in demand for life-sustainment elements has not been uniform.  Increasing industrialization facilitated population growth but also brought about the environmental conditions that endanger us today.  Our new reality is that climate change from industrial carbon emissions is the latest and most profound threat to our ability to sustain life. 

Here are some sobering numbers: Roughly 75% of the world’s population reside in developing countries, where living (infrastructure) conditions pale those in developed countries.  According to the World Health Organization, over half live in poverty facing life sustainment shortcomings resulting in malnutrition, lack of potable water, and rampant disease. 

Until the latter part of the last century, actions to expand life-sustainment elements singularly focused on element growth and availability.  This back-and-forth interplay between the population’s increased demand and the drive for the sufficiency of life-sustainment elements created the conditions (climate warming) that have put the earth’s ecosystem at risk of failure. 

Malthus and Kissinger were correct in their perception of uncontrolled population growth as a threat to global stability.  The current view realizes instability is not just from population growth but also human consumption differentials.  Although prescient, neither Malthus nor Kissinger envisioned consumption as an existential threat to the planet’s ability to support life. 

In retrospect, it is ironic that industrialized economies that prop up humanity have become the culprit killing the planet.  Historically, the characterization of the relationship between population growth (demand) and life-sustainment systems (supply) has been to focus on supply’s responsiveness to demand.  That was until unintended adverse environmental consequences from fossil fuel sourced energy generation and poor consumption waste management began threatening the stability of the earth’s ecosystem, overwhelming its self-cleanse ability, and gradually compromising its ability to support life. 

The simple view of what constitutes a healthy population is the number of humans and each person’s resource consumption.  In today’s globalized, interconnected economy, the behavior of a few in one developed society may well have a profound impact on thousands living elsewhere on earth.  These inequalities have been framed in economic or sociological terms for many years, but today inequality is also an environmental concern. 

Humankind is on notice.  According to the Worldwatch Institute, humankind’s overriding challenges are truncating climate change, slowing population growth, and reducing consumption.  To them, the concept of consumption expands the causal factor beyond population numbers to its variability and life-sustainment impact.  For example, as people escape depressed conditions, their sustainable level of consumption increases, placing increased pressure on life-sustainment systems.  According to Paul Murtaugh at Oregon State University, a child born today in a developed country such as the USA will produce an eventual “carbon footprint seven times that of a child in China, 55 times that of an Indian child or 86 times that of a Nigerian child.” 

A favored approach to addressing climate change is transitioning life-sustainment element development from fossil fuel to clean energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear.  The National Academy of Sciences predicts slowing population growth could provide a 16-19% emission reduction necessary by 2050.  To avoid dangerous climate change, per the United Nations, the other 81-84% needed to avoid dangerous climate change must come from reduced consumption and clean energy production.    

The lesson for humankind is the importance of balance.  Climate change needs a solution; to date, the target has been the equation’s supply side.  That said, the effect of the obsession with supply has left population growth and consumption essentially unbridled.  Humankind’s failure to focus on population – the equation’s demand side – is equivalent to health care addressing illness by focusing on symptoms instead of cause, making short-term relief a false sign of causal abatement. 

While there is little debate that present levels of fossil fuel consumption adversely impact the climate, a single approach to saving the planet merits considered assessment.  There are many unknowns with clean energy; environmentalists need to formulate a practical approach that recognizes the benefit of fossil fuel’s continued value until clean energy demonstrates capability and capacity to meet demand requirements.  In addition, political will needs to address the reality of population growth’s impact on the challenge involved in meeting sustainment demands.  While the efficacy of clean energy is improving, it continues to lag behind traditional fuel sources, which means a collaborative approach involving both forms will be the future for years to come.    

Furthermore, environmentalists expect clean energy systems to generate environmentally degrading waste similar to fossil fuel under the stress of total sustainment demand.  Solar arrays use hazardous and rare materials such as silver and copper, along with enormous batteries for energy storage, hydroelectric plants have massive requirements for land and water, and nuclear reactor waste is recognized as a management challenge.  Of equal concern is reliability.  While clean energy may be sustainable, is it reliable?   

Population growth’s demand for adequate sustainment is a forcing function, stressing sustainment capabilities and capacities, impacting the earth’s fragile ecosystem.  As the science and technology sectors continue to research climate-friendly alternatives to sustain our global population, the world must also manage population growth and lower consumption.  How these ostensibly complementing efforts integrate for synergy is where benefit may reside going forward. 

While long recognized a problem, it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that global climate concern gained compelling U.S. attention and support. Even today, voices of disagreement are loud, challenging whether climate concerns warrant the projected levels of infrastructure disruption clean energy requires. What is unambiguous is that if humankind only addresses non-causal factors, it will be akin to tinkering on the margins while hoping dramatic improvement occurs. Establishing foundation fundamentals to manage population growth and consumption is necessary if humankind is to extricate itself from its current path of self-destruction.

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