Category Archives: Environment

Human Overpopulation Threatens Our Survival

Originally published on Care2.

The human population is too big to really comprehend. Seven billion — how does one imagine that many people? And by 2050, we are projected to reach nine billion — two billion more individuals in under 40 years. That is so many that it is practically meaningless.

But it is very meaningful to the survival of life on this planet. In an article titled “Why the Real Victim of Overpopulation Will Be the Environment,” Time Magazine reports that “there’s an undeniable cost to all these people and all this growth: the planet itself.” The Guardian sums up the consequences of overpopulation in a piece called “Why Current Population Growth is Costing Us the Earth”: “Since we passed one billion in 1800, our rising numbers and consumption have already caused climate change, rising sea levels, expanding deserts and the ‘sixth extinction’ of wildlife.”

Not everyone agrees that 9 billion people are too many for Earth to sustain. But there is no arguing with the assertion by Roger Martin, Chair of Population Matters, in that Guardian article: “Indefinite population growth is physically impossible on a finite planet — it will certainly stop at some point.”

We may be nearing that point. The Independent reported that an “environmental assessment by the conservation charity WWF and the Worldwatch Institute in Washington found that humans were now exploiting about 20 per cent more renewable resources than can be replaced each year.”

That was six years ago. Things have only gotten worse.

The same article attributed to Professor John Guillebaud of University College London the calculation that “it would require the natural resources equivalent to four more Planet Earths to sustain the projected 2050 population of nine billion people.”

Becoming more green isn’t enough. Even if every one of us were more environmentally conscious, consuming and polluting less and conserving more, there would still come a point at which there were simply too many people. The Independent quotes an article by Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, explaining that “Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental ‘footprint’, the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero. Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.”

Unfortunately, that lack of an individual is a taboo topic. Professor Rapley calls reducing population growth “a bombshell of a topic, with profound and emotive issues of ethics, morality, equity and practicability. In interdisciplinary meetings addressing how the planet functions as an integrated whole, demographers and population specialists are usually notable by their absence.”

In an interview with Care2, Searle Whitney, President of population studies organization, illustrated the delicacy with which experts approach the question of halting (much less reversing) population growth. “We would like to see a stable, sustainable birthrate, where births and deaths are more or less equal,” he said, then stopped short of endorsing any policies that might make that happen. “Children are wonderful and raising them is a life-changing experience. We feel that having one or two, or none or three, are all good options,” he said.

As far as the planet’s ability to sustain life, they are not all good options, but as Professor Rapley noted, few will say so. The United Nations came close in 1992, but has since gone quiet on the issue. Back then it issued a “blueprint for sustainable development” called Agenda 21, which advised that “population policy should…recognize the role played by human beings in environmental and development concerns.”

Following the shameful history of eugenics and forced sterilizations in this country and oppressive laws like China’s one-child policy, however, policymakers are loathe to take any step that appears to limit individuals’ freedom to have as many children as they want.

The cost of this inaction could be dire. As Professor Guillebaud says, “We urgently need to stabilise and reduce human numbers.” On many levels, it is a matter of life and death.

Photo credit:World Resources

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Save the Planet: Eat Less Meat

Originally published on Care2.

What if you could make one immediate change in your life that would significantly decrease global warming and other damage to the environment? Great news: you can. Stop eating meat.

Perhaps the best thing you can do to save the environment is eat a plant-based diet, according to the United Nations, Sierra Club, Worldwatch Institute, Al Gore’s Live Earth, and many others. Even replacing just some of the meat you eat with grains, vegetables, legumes, fruit, and other plant-based foods can make a big difference.

Just changing the source of your meat won’t do much. As a recent New York Times op-ed by James E. McWilliams explained, there is no such thing as ecologically sustainable meat. Local, organic, free-range — all of it takes or will lead to a surprisingly large toll on the environment.

Meat production may be the most important reason for global warming, which results almost entirely from a combination of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Raising animals for food is a major source of carbon dioxide and the single largest source of the other two gases: 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions, as Kathy Freston reports in The Huffington Post. The United Nations has concluded that eating a vegan diet “is vital to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change,” according to The Guardian.

The livestock industry is largely responsible for deforestation, which obliterates ecosystems that would otherwise absorb carbon dioxide. According to Freston, “Animal agriculture takes up an incredible 70% of all agricultural land, and 30% of the total land surface of the planet. As a result, farmed animals are probably the biggest cause of slashing and burning the world’s forests. Today, 70% of former Amazon rainforest is used for pastureland, and feed crops cover much of the remainder.” Clearing all this land for pasture and feed crops also shrinks or eliminates the habitats for countless species of wildlife.

Just cutting back on your meat consumption has an impact. Al Gore’s Live Earth organization reports that “If everyone went vegetarian just for one day, the U.S. would save: 100 billion gallons of water, enough to supply all the homes in New England for almost 4 months and 70 million gallons of gas, enough to fuel all the cars of Canada and Mexico combined with plenty to spare.” Joining the“Meatless Monday” movement, which encourages people to eat no meat for one day every week, could go a long way.

Driving a Prius doesn’t even approach the impact of eating less meat. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” A University of Chicago study confirms that in terms of fossil fuel consumption, there is “an order of magnitude” difference “between dietary and personal transportation choices.” What is on your plate matters much more than what is in your garage.

Climate change isn’t the only ill that the meat industry generates. Freston notes that “raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution [including the ammonia that causes acid rain, and] loss of biodiversity.” The livestock industry alone is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,” according to the U.N.’s report.

We don’t need to eat all this meat. We’d actually be healthier without it, as meat consumption plays a role in causing our three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. To help protect the environment and your health, visit the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for a free Vegetarian Starter Kit. The earth will thank you.

Photo Credit: penarc


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Should Environmentalists Breed?

Every one of us contributes to the destruction of Earth’s environment. We all consume resources and generate waste. One way to quantify each individual’s impact on the environment is called a “carbon footprint” (you can measure yours here). Americans’ carbon footprints hugely exceed the international average.

Some people who choose not to have children cite preserving the environment as a reason for their decision. Personally I consider it more of a free gift with purchase — I chose not to have kids because I didn’t want kids, and as a bonus I am not creating more Americans to add pressure to our environment.

Two conservationists wrote about their family planning decisions — one had children and the other did not — in Earth Island Journal. Erica Gies, who chose not to reproduce, wrote that “The health of the natural systems upon which we depend is declining. That decline is part of why I’ve decided not to have kids. I simply can’t in good conscience contribute to the rapid diminishment of our world. Also, given the degradation of natural resources and landscapes, children born today are likely to have a lesser quality of life than I am enjoying. I don’t want to condemn them to that.”

Unsurprisingly I think she got the best of the mother, Julie Zickefoose, who wrote that she had children because “A thoughtful person’s child is not going to cause the poles to melt” because thoughtful people’s children will be conscientious about their impact on the planet. Even so, they will have an impact.

Plus, as Gies argues, “kids have an uncanny ability to grow up to be their own people, who don’t necessarily live by your values or have the number of kids you’d prefer.” A parent’s thoughtfulness is no guarantee that her child will think the same way.

We don’t often discuss the environmental consequences of our family planning decisions, so I recommend reading these two essays. Feel free to comment on this post to add your own perspective to the discussion.

On a side note, Zickefoose wrote that she didn’t have children earlier than her late 30’s because she was afraid — “Afraid to add to the world’s masses. Afraid to give up my freedom to travel or do whatever I wanted. Afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of raising good people. Afraid I’d let them down.” Lest readers extrapolate her fear to all childfree adults, my own experience has been that it takes courage to be true to oneself against the tide of what I have called the “preachers of parenthood.” Gies’s experience sounds similar — like me, she has been told that she was “selfish” for not having children. Her retort, that “My not having kids is an act of generosity that leaves more resources for his children,” is better than anything I’ve come up with.


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