Copenhagen Diary #4

Different cultures have very different views on the relationship between population and climate change. In some circles population is the great unmentionable. It is still associated with the coercive policies some early family planners tried to impose. In others it is the perfect excuse for why we should not have to do anything about our consumption – if other countries didn’t breed so fast there would be more for us. There’s hardly a public meeting I hold on climate change that someone doesn’t say at question time, “but isn’t population growth the real problem? There are just too many people”. They don’t usually follow up by offering to remove themselves from the world early, or to give up the chance of grandchildren. They are right, and they are wrong. Population growth makes it just so much harder to live within the  limits of the planet. But consumption is growing so much faster than population that even if population stabilised climate change would be slowed only a little.

The European Parliament cross-party forum on population and development held a “discussion lunch” yesterday to look at the relationship between population policies and the challenge of climate change. Family planning activists from many organisations around the world listened to three presentations then compared views over lunch.

Family planning is focused on the hundreds of millions of women who would prefer to have fewer children if they had access to family planning. While the prediction of 9.2 billion people by 2050 is scary when one thinks of food supply, this is just the central prediction, based on the assumption that current resources for family planning programmes will continue. That is no longer a valid assumption. Resources have been shifted out of programmes into other important initiatives like Aids prevention because governments love announcing new generous programmes and avoid telling people it is not new money, but recycled from somewhere else. The fear is that climate change adaptation finance will also rob these programmes.

Then there are the perverse drivers. There is climate change adaptation aid available in the Maldives. It is very short of land but some islands have  less than 500 people and so don’t qualify for help to build a sea wall. So families have more children in order to get to the population that will qualify for government programmes.

The man from Ethiopia spoke last at our table. The average land available for a whole family to feed itself in large parts of his country is 0.25 ha. Two million more people are expected to join that population in the next few years. He thinks it’s too late to leave it to individual choice.

8 Comments Posted

  1. Another interesting Post thank you Jeanette.
    I still feel it is lifestyles, not numbers that is pushing our planet’s sustainability under.
    The only country we can begin changing today is New Zealand – thus I found your notes on the efficiency of Public Transport there most uplifting.
    Great to see our Parliamentarians giving us Value for Money in their Overseas Travels.
    Messr’s Hide and Harawira should take note!

  2. A1kmm: there’s no evidence to support your notion that we need less people on the earth, and resource use is a far more complex subject still (almost all of the things we use resources for can be achieved sustainably, even using almost all the same resources, it’s just a matter of imposing a different cost structure around production, distribution, and disposal).

    As much as people like to use evolution as a metaphor for all sorts of sociological bullshit, it’s just a theory of biological genes and their distribution density within a limited pool. All humans already carry genes that let them put equal effort into raising fewer children, under the right conditions (like with compulsory education, illegal child labour, and low infant mortality), which you’d know if you’d read anything about the subjects.

  3. Tussock: The world needs both a reduced population and a reduced per-capita resource usage. Neither will happen under a laissez-faire approach. Some people with the choice will choose to have less kids, so family planning is a short-term solution. But in the long-term, more coercive measures will unfortunately be needed.

    Evolution occurs, given enough time, on any signal which can undergo small incremental changes (mutations), which can be passed on (heritable) and where there is a selective pressure. Culture is subject to evolution – it can change over time, it is heritable when someone passes it on (very often to family members, but it can also be transmitted independently of genetic material), and subject to selective pressure (some cultures will wipe themselves out or diminish their numbers as a result of the beliefs and practices of the culture, others will grow).

    Decisions on how many children to have likely depend on both culture and genetics – and unfortunately, both are subject to evolution.

  4. The man from Ethiopia spoke last at our table. The average land available for a whole family to feed itself in large parts of his country is 0.25 ha. Two million more people are expected to join that population in the next few years. He thinks it’s too late to leave it to individual choice.

    Surely that is a strong statement that excess population is the heart of the problem.

    They can’t increase the size of the land – so the only other variable is to slow/shrink the population.

    Clearly the Chinese were very brave with their one child policy, despite the fact they have often been criticised for it.

  5. Oh, and evolution is something you clearly don’t understand, it doesn’t function on that scale at all. Culture is not genetic.

  6. A1kmm: note that people mostly don’t starve, as such, they die of disease and have less children because of malnutrition.

    And Jeanette’s correct, if you read the whole post; people with the choice do choose less kids, and we need to get the growth in per-capita resource use down under the growth in population (which is falling already, in terms of growth rate) before it matters either way.

    Ultimately the world will have both, it’s just a matter of if we’ll choose the easy way or blunder on into the hard way.

  7. A1kmm – I agree with your post. Environmental decisions must be built upon the foundation stone of population control.

    Higher population can only occur when adequate environmental resources and strategies are in place.

  8. I think that both population growth and growth in natural resource use per capita are unsustainable – especially as the area of usable land declines due to rising sea levels and climate change, and mineral reserves are depleted. Tackling either one of the two problems will be insufficient.

    We have two choices – we either restrict population growth now, or take the laissez-faire approach, and let the population grow. The latter approach will mean that the complete population will not be able to survive on the available resources. Taxing the rich and giving to the poor will buy time, because it will mean that everyone can survive, instead of some having luxuries and others not having enough to survive, but this will only buy time – eventually there will not be enough for everyone, even with no waste on luxuries. At this point, people start starving, and the population will fall to a sustainable level (with ongoing deaths from starvation to keep it sustainable).

    The former option is much better.

    Some will argue that we don’t need to work to control the population, because improving economic conditions will cause a decline in fertility. However, this is only true short-term.

    Those that do not reproduce as much will have fewer descendants than those who do, and so natural selection will simply result in a population which is willing to reproduce. Even if this population decrease was sustainable, it is no good to trade a lower fertility rate for a higher resource usage.

    We need to get more people working, but using fewer natural resources – in an economic framework which pushes for efficiency. Having people working on intellectual developments, like software improvements that can use existing hardware, as well as art and music that is distributed using existing computers, and Green New Deal type work to improve sustainability.

    But we also need to stop some people from doing more than their fair share of reproducing. There is simply no alternative to it. Society can’t afford for everyone to have lots of kids, and so the total number of descendants which society can afford is a finite resource. Social justice dictates that this finite resource should be distributed fairly. It is also important that children are not punished for the actions of their parents.

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