Africa / Agriculture / Asia / Environment / Food Security / North America / NRM / WLE / Women

The sustainability problem: Is it too many people? Or too much consumption by a few?

Boy in Niger village eating his daily meal of boiled milletThe following statements are excerpted from All consuming, an article by David Biello on global consumption and population issues published in the current issue of  Momentum, published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

> ‘Two German Shepherds kept as pets in Europe or the U.S. use more resources in a year than the average person living in Bangladesh.’

> ‘The world’s richest 500 million people produce half of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion emit just 7 percent.’

> ‘Industrial tree cutting is now responsible for the majority of the 13 million hectares of forest lost to fire or the blade each year—surpassing the smaller-scale footprints of subsistence farmers who leave behind long, narrow swaths of cleared land, so-called fish bones.’

> ‘So are the world’s environmental ills really a result of the burgeoning number of humans on the planet—growing by more than 150 people a minute and predicted by the United Nations to reach at least 9 billion people by 2050? Or are they more due to the fact that, while human population doubled in the past 50 years, we increased our use of resources fourfold?’

‘Human population numbers will drop voluntarily for the first time ever in human history in the 21st century. A Baby Bust has replaced the Baby Boom.’

‘The reason? Empowerment of women. A massive reduction in child mortality, combined with educated mothers pursuing their own advancement and in control of birth control, has helped to drop the average human brood from over five children per woman of childbearing age to just 2.6 per woman today. As journalist Fred Pearce writes in his new book, The Coming Population Crash: “The population bomb is being defused. By women. Because they want to.”’

‘The combination of increasing health (especially a greater proportion of babies surviving to adulthood), empowered women and falling birth rates may be the most important revolution to come out of the tumultuous 20th century.’

‘The real question is, how many people can the planet sustain?’

‘Human ingenuity—whether through the waterworks of ancient Babylon or the more modern breeding of staple crops such as wheat for higher yields, known as the “Green Revolution”— has outpaced, so far, the pessimism of apocalyptic environmentalists.’

‘Yet apocalyptic biologists have a strong case as well. Fifty percent of all temperate grasslands and forests have disappeared, largely under the plow. More than 16,000 known species face extinction . . . . Water tables around the globe plummet precipitously, thanks to human withdrawals for agriculture. And population growth to 9 billion people alone will add as much as 2 billion metric tons more of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse gas blanket smothering Earth.’

> The most profound way a U.S. citizen can impact climate change is to have fewer children, since every American child born today will add almost 10,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere under current conditions—five times more than a Chinese child and 160 times more than a baby from Bangladesh. Having one fewer child would reduce a family’s greenhouse gas impact 20 times more than driving a Toyota Prius, using Energy Star appliances and other environmentally friendly lifestyle choices combined, according to researchers at Oregon State University.’

‘But the real problem today—as it has been since at least the time of Thomas Malthus—may be food. Simply to maintain today’s number of chronically malnourished or outright starving people—1 billion—in 2050 with a larger population and present crop yields would require clearing 900 million additional hectares of land. At most, there are an additional 100 million hectares to add to the 4.3 billion already under cultivation worldwide, according to Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program at the Earth Institute.’

> ‘Immigration remains the single most effective poverty alleviation program on the planet . . . .’

> ‘Ultimately, the problem isn’t the number of people, necessarily. It’s what those people do. The average American (just one of 309 million) uses up some 194 pounds of stuff—food, water, plastics, metals and other things—per day, day in and day out. We consume a full 25 percent of the world’s energy despite representing just 5 percent of global population. And that consumerism is spreading, whether it be the adoption of cars as a lifestyle choice in China or gadget lust in the U.S.’

More . . . (Momentum magazine, All consuming, Spring issue 2010)

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