Burning down the house

July 11, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Aerial view of sprawl outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst homes on the edge of the Everglades; GoogleEarth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO.


Today is World Population Day (July 11)

Picture the street where you live. Now imagine that a building in your neighborhood bursts into flame and burns to the ground. Day after day, the calamity is repeated.

With safety and livelihoods at risk, people begin to argue about the best way to counter the threat. Some say that the fire department budget should be increased to support more trucks and firefighters. Others say that infrastructure is the problem to fix, that building codes should mandate construction with nonflammable materials.

No one bothers to ask, “What is causing the fires? Is there a gas leak or an arsonist on the loose?”

If this were the public response to a crisis in your neighborhood, you’d call it dangerous. It would be laughable to simply fight the fires without seeking and addressing their cause.

And yet even that superficial level of conversation is deeper than the typical response to the ecological and social conflagration engulfing the Earth — the great unraveling of nature and the unprecedented number of people living in crushing poverty.

Mostly, we just don’t talk about it, let alone ask, “What is causing the fire? The answer is too uncomfortable. Unintentionally, but in effect, humanity has become a planetary arsonist, burning down the houses (habitat) of our neighbors in the community of life. Our numbers and behavior are transforming the Earth, causing unnecessary suffering for people and for the other creatures with which we share the planet.

It’s time to talk about the size of the human family and the way we organize our economic activity (and not just today, on World Population Day), in language that is both honest and non-accusatory. It’s time to move beyond old arguments about whether population size or overconsumption is most culpable (both matter) and work urgently to expand rights, opportunity, and health for people in high fertility countries.

People of good will across the political spectrum can agree that major challenges facing nature and people such as biodiversity loss, poverty and malnutrition, climate change, destruction of indigenous cultures, economic inequity, and sectarian violence are driven or may be amplified by the exponential growth of the human population.

We can also agree that reversing the demographic trajectory is not a magic wand that will solve every ecological and social problem. No reasonable person, however, can believe that adding more than 1.5 million people to the Earth every week —billions more in the coming decades — will make these challenges easier to solve.

Getting over the population taboo in our public discourse is possible, especially when we focus on the practical, achievable, and affordable work to be done. Those efforts advance individual liberty and dignity, while having societal and global benefits.

In high fertility countries where human suffering is great, significant gains can be made for maternal health and poverty alleviation by focusing on empowering women, educating girls, and making family planning tools and information universally available. When societies emphasize these three pillars of civic engagement in the context of a universal human rights framework, birthrates typically fall quickly.

In high consumption countries the same fundamentals apply, especially the need for access to family planning. Eliminating unintended births in wealthy countries has disproportionately positive effects.

For example, stopping population growth in the U.S., where roughly half of all pregnancies are unintended, will have far greater climate and environmental benefits than, say, lowering Niger’s total fertility rate, which is more than seven children per woman. The former will help reduce negative pressures on the global biotic community, the latter would help lessen suffering of families and local communities in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Here is an opportunity for government policies and humanitarian health programs operated by NGOs to focus on actions that are effective and morally just, and which have profoundly positive effects for individuals, families, nations, and the Earth.

A world asked to support 9 or 10 billion or more people will be hotter, more violent, less beautiful, and almost certainly will have more struggling, hungry people in both underdeveloped and overdeveloped countries. It will have little room left for elephants and bison and sea turtles, and be more toxic to coral reefs and our children’s lungs.

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Elephant family in Masai Mara National Park, Kenya; © Daniel Dancer

Conversely, if we seek a future with more (wild) life and less (resource-driven) strife, we should work hard now to make sure that the human family never reaches 10 billion. Expanding rights and opportunities for women — and family planning services for couples — is a crucial step toward a more beautiful future for nature and people.

It is urgent that we keep talking about and working toward this objective tomorrow, the day after World Population Day, when some 220,000 additional people will come to the breakfast table, and the pressures on wild nature, the climate, and suffering families will be a little more acute.

Tom Butler

Conservationist Tom Butler edited the new book Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (populationspeakout.org).

He is editorial projects director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology and president of Northeast Wilderness Trust. 

Tags: Population