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An Inconvenient Truth That Environmentalists Don’t Want to Talk About
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by Samuel B. Hopkins | 2008

The inconvenient truth is that the total human population must stop growing and then decrease, if we are to have any chance in the long run of preserving our environment, having a decent level of living in a resource-depleted world, and avoiding an uncontrolled collapse of population like that experienced by some past civilizations.

If environmentalists don’t talk about the need to reduce population, who will?

The inconvenient truth is that the total human population must stop growing and then decrease, if we are to have any chance in the long run of preserving our environment, having a decent level of living in a resource-depleted world, and avoiding an uncontrolled collapse of population like that experienced by some past civilizations.

And, the long run is rapidly getting shorter. We need to appreciate how population growth explodes once it reaches a substantial size. We should not forget that population grows exponentially; exponential growth is eventually explosive even at low rates; and “eventually” is now. The doubling from one to two billion people (1927) took 123 years. We added another two billion in 46 years (1974). And we have since added another 2.7 billion in only 32 years, even though the growth rate has averaged less than 2%. 

Environmentalists were vocal in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s about the need to stop population growth. We must again speak up, especially when we are talking about climate change and the impending decline in fossil fuel production.

 

Climate Change

How can we achieve a 70-80% reduction in our emissions of greenhouse gases without draconian measures in the short run? In the longer run, only population reduction can allow a substantial majority in the world to enjoy comfortable standards of living. Yet, at all the conferences I have attended on peak oil, climate change or both, nothing about population growth, size or decline was on the agenda. Al Gore’s film and stump speech include a chart of the explosive population growth still in progress. But he did not say the obvious—that this growth must stop and be reversed, if humans are to have a decent chance of stopping climate change.

 

Peak Oil, Natural Gas and Coal

Never has the production of food been so dependent on fossil fuels. Modern, so-called high-yield agriculture requires more energy for each calorie produced (by about a 10 to 1 ratio) than do the old, low-yield methods. So the impending decline in annual production of oil, natural gas and coal is a threat to our most basic needs, not just to the luxuries of central heating and air conditioning, and automotive and air travel. There is no long plateau when production peaks. Many experts say that oil has already peaked. The peak for coal was once thought at least a century away. But new assessments of coal reserves suggest that coal production could peak in as few as 17 years. The natural gas peak will vary geographically, since gas is expensive to transport. But the U.S. faces the peaking of gas production in the near future.

Growth of population is no longer the immediate problem. Rather, it is absolute size. Absolute size determines how feasible it is to:

u substitute biofuels, wind energy, hydro, and solar for fossil fuels

u reconsider land use and development in order to return to a less fossil-fuel-intensive (but lower yield) agriculture that requires more human labor, and

u move millions of people away from coastal areas in response to rising sea levels.

    

There are many reasons why environmentalists often find it difficult to talk about the need to stop human population growth on this planet and then thoughtfully and humanely reverse it. 

Fundamental among the  reasons are the modest sacrifices that must be accepted if a population is not growing and, even more so, if it is declining. First among these are the challenges of supporting the dependent elderly with a smaller population of younger people, and the reduced opportunities for business.

 

Less fundamental are the following:

1. Complacency or hope from the fact that fertility rates have been declining in a large part of the world.

2. Growing organized hostility to abortion and even contraception.

3. Opposition of human rights groups to one of the very few effective efforts to slow or stop population growth—the one-child policy in China that began about 1980.

4. The position of some feminists that advocacy of fertility reduction infringes on women’s reproductive freedom.

5. The promotion of growth with an illusory appeal of “green,” “smart,” or “sustainable,” which can at best delay damage to the environment.

6. Concern of some environmentalists that population stabilization is another threat to economic or environmental justice.

7. The pro-population-growth wishes of many who fund environmental organizations.

 

We environmentalists must confront and overcome these obstacles so that we can once again take the lead in educating the public about the need to reduce the size of the human population.      n

 

Mr. Hopkins  worked as an advisor at  the West Pakistan Research and Evaluation Center (part of the Pakistan National Family Planning Program) in 1967-69.  He  was president of the Baltimore Chapter of Zero Population Growth, 1969-73, and a Research Associate with the Law & Population Programme at Tufts University, 1974-75.  The latter funded research and monographs on how a large variety of laws in developing countries affected their population growths.

 

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