Azara Blog: The world is allegedly at an end

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Date published: 2007/11/06

The BBC says:

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet's ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week's Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we've created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

We've outgrown the planet and need radical action to avert unspeakable consequences. This - by a huge margin - has become humanity's greatest challenge.
Though we like to imagine we are different from other species, we humans are not exempt from the threats posed by ecological degradation.

Analysts worry, for example, about the future of food production. Climate change-induced drought and the depletion of oil and aquifers - resources on which farming and food distribution depend - could trigger famine on an unprecedented scale.

Billions could die. At the very least, we risk our children inheriting a bleak world, empty of the richness of life we take for granted.

Alarmist? Yes, but realistically so.
We must end world population growth, then reduce population size. That means lowering population numbers in industrialised as well as developing nations.

Scientists point to the population-environment link. But today's environmentalists avoid the subject more than any other ecological truth. Their motives range from the political to a misunderstanding of the issue.

A lot of the article (not quoted above) is the usual fuzzy ecological/economic diatribe you expect from these kinds of people. (These people are pretty near the top of the human consumption tree, but are somehow dismissive of human consumption.) But human population is indeed the number one problem on the planet. If there were half as many humans the world would be in better shape. But nobody is volunteering to leave. And unfortunately, most governments in the rich West positively encourage their own citizens to have children, and so having children is perhaps the most subsidised activity of them all, i.e. parents have successfully externalised much of the cost of child rearing onto the rest of society (mainly, but not only, via the cost of education).

The author is correct that most so-called environmentalists avoid the issue. Perhaps this is because most so-called environmentalists breed just as much as everyone else, but like to go around pretending they are actually pro-environment. There is a saying, "give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime". Well you could equally say, "be a child and damage the environment for a lifetime, have a child and damage the environment forever" (because they in turn will have children, on into infinity).

Of course nobody knows what the "optimal" human population is. And no doubt the planet will somehow cope with the 9 billion people we are expecting in 2050, it just will not be so pleasant an environment. Feeney is just stating silly trivialities to say "billions could die". First of all, we will all die, so indeed billions will die. But there could indeed be a massive famine that kills billions of people in a short period. Or a killer virus. Or a nasty world war. Or [ pick your favourite disaster scenario ]. This is not saying very much, especially with the weasel word "could". The Chicago Cubs could win the World Series next year. Would Feeney place a bet on the Cubs?

All species eventually have a crash in population. It's called Nature. And although Feeney claims to be aware that propulation crashes are a normal part of Nature (whether "caused" by humans or otherwise), Feeney evidently wants to fight this aspect of Nature so as to preserve humanity "forever" (well, until the Sun dies). If a human population crash happens in a million or a billion years then nobody should worry about it now. If Feeney wants to claim it will happen in the next decade or two then he should say so and put his money where his mouth is, rather than use weasel words like "could". Of course claims of famine due to alleged over-population have been around since Malthus. Indeed, this kind of article has probably appeared every year since Malthus. It is not very original or predictive.

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