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Squaring up to difficult truths: population and the environment

Elephants in the room, part one For all our schemes and mantras about making this or that part of our lives environmentally “sustainable”, humanity’s assault on the planet not only continues but expands…

Our teeming attack on the natural world threatens to turn the wilderness into a fetish item. AAP/The Wilderness Society

Elephants in the room, part one

For all our schemes and mantras about making this or that part of our lives environmentally “sustainable”, humanity’s assault on the planet not only continues but expands.

The conservation movement dates back centuries and our technological prowess grows day by day, but even so the wilderness is shrinking, species dying out, and on and on we spread, build, and plunder. It’s easy to see our schemes and mantras as ultimately little more than fiddling while Rome burns.

What are the deep problems that we don’t talk about in terms of our relationship with nature? What, so to speak, are the elephants in the room? This is part one of a series written by Professor Cliff Hooker, looking at some of these elephants.

Get out of our way: bushland is bulldozed on Perth’s fringes to make way for more houses. AAP/WWF Australia

When we’re talking about the relationship between humans and the environment, the most obvious elephant in the room is human population growth. This is rarely discussed in the Western media nowadays, especially compared to the 1970s, but it is central to what we’re doing to to the planet. We reached an estimated 7 billion people last October, and the OECD estimates that will climb to more than 9 billion by mid-century.

Yet, the only cases where population still gets coverage are those where the sheer numbers of people are the immediate problem: think China and India, or Pakistan where 40% of people are below 15 years of age and will themselves explode into further procreation over the next decade. But also think of the Sydney (Australia) Basin and the coming Sunshine Coast-Gold Coast conurbation.

In all these cases the environment - and human society as well in many regards - would be so much better off if human numbers were cut by a factor of two to five (in other words, reduced to between 50% and 20% of their present size).

Five benefits of a fall in population

First, it would vastly decrease the greatest environmental pressure we exert: habitat loss due to agriculture, recreation, industrial exploitation (dams, mining, etc), urban sprawl, and waste.

Second, it would make it easier to shape development to be compatible with natural ecological requirements. We could preserve creeks nearer to pristine condition and restore wetlands. It would also make it easier to safely extract the things we do want from ecologies (for example, to catch many kinds of fish for eating, instead of just steadily dwindling stocks of the most common fish).

Third, for developing countries, it would decrease some of the major barriers to economic development, including the costs of providing - ahead of rising taxable incomes - education, infrastructure and public institutions.

Fourth, it would offer increased opportunity for all to live surrounded by natural landscape and wildlife, and within more manageable urban structures. These are a much-underestimated support for sane living, especially when it comes to child development.

Homeless and dependent: as the forests of Kashmir are razed for development, monkeys have ended up begging on the roads. AAP/EPA/Jaipal Singh

Fifth, it reduces all the effects of non-uniform scaling up in numbers; that is, as population numbers rise relationships change. For instance, twice as many people does not mean twice as many streets but the same traffic densities; instead, even with twice as many streets, the arterial roads will be nearly twice as crowded. There are at least four categories of effects of this sort.

How relationships change as population rises

Congestion: Higher population means many more people trying to use the same streets, cafes and elevators. This can slow down and even temporarily halt normal socio-economic processes. For example, a busy 50-storey office building faces disproportionately longer elevator use times than do three-storey buildings. (What’s more, instead of building a 50-storey tower of 40m x 40m base area sitting on a 200m x 200m open space square, we could build a three-storey building along the edges of that footprint, providing the same floor space, many access points, often stairs, and an enjoyable central sheltered courtyard.)

Friction: More people means it takes many more procedures to get something done. For instance, it reduces efficiency to have to fill in a form and have one’s tool bag officially inspected just to enter a building to service the coffee machine; this happens mostly at large, busy buildings where people don’t know one another directly.

Overheads: The numbers of managers needed to organise an activity rises faster than the number of people needing to be organised. For instance, a team of three mostly does not need a leader while a team of 3,000 will need hundreds of local team leaders (of, say, 10) plus middle managers to coordinate them and executive managers to ensure overall coordination. Managerial “distance” can also increase friction and vice versa.

Thresholding volatility: Where normal system performance is pushed to near its limits, inadvertent small changes can result in it crossing a threshold to a new way of functioning. In many cases this new way will be a degraded way of functioning from which the system cannot easily recover. For instance, an expressway near capacity is in a highly vulnerable state where an isolated braking incident can lead to a traffic jam, sometimes with mounting accidents at its rear end; either way the highway has degraded to non-functioning.

“A degraded way of functioning.‘ Sao Paulo, Brazil AAP/EPA/Sebastio Moreira

There are also downsides to population declines. For example, declining numbers also mean fewer workers, smaller markets and revenues, less intense and varied stimulation, fewer forms of back-up for failures, and so on. And these effects will become increasingly important as human numbers fall.

Similarly, there is the consideration of how many people we need to have sufficient “weight” in regional affairs to serve our legitimate interests, including a credible defence capacity. But this number would fall if our neighbours had smaller populations. (On both counts, recall the brief “Big Australia” debate of 2010/11.)

But within reasonable limits, and depending on a society’s circumstances (ecological, international, etc), there are rewards to be enjoyed for becoming smaller, especially for organised developing nations, and for Western urban domains, as mentioned above. Only the Chinese, through their one-child policy, are doing anything direct and serious about it. Ironically, they are self-righteously criticised for it by people like us who are so well-off we too often have trouble rousing ourselves publicly to do anything but complain about losing privileges.

More of us wanting more and more: a Beijing crowd waits for the doors to a new iPhone to open. AAP/EPA/Diego Azubel

Why doesn’t the West discuss population?

The West does not discuss population numbers partly because the market is thought to favour growth. Business finds growing numbers attractive because it mean more consumers for their products, and more labour to compete for jobs and to support an aging population. Remember the recent calls for increased immigration, lest there be a fall in the number of people seeking work and supporting the aged?

However, there are a couple of flaws in this argument. First: this perspective calls for an endlessly increasing population and this would ultimately undermine all basic rationales for it (except making money and increasing money-based power). Second: it is far from clear that this is even the best economic strategy for business. Consider smaller numbers enjoying increasing technological and human services, for example in support of “smart” green technologies. Why would this strategy not generate as much or more wealth per capita, and a great deal more satisfaction along the way?

Another reason the West does not discuss population numbers is because our gross numbers are relatively low. But this is an illusory perspective. An individual human’s impact on the environment is vastly magnified by wealth, technology and lifestyle. Thus Western nations have many times the per capita environmental impact of developing ones.

For instance, Westerners eat higher on the food chain, which greatly increases our demand for plants. Roughly, for every step up the food chain, one kilogram of food requires five to ten kilograms of supporting food on the lower step; so a human (or a tiger) who extracts one kilogram of body weight from cattle or deer needs to eat five to ten kilograms of deer, and those deer in turn need to eat 25-100 kilograms of plants. Straight away, the Hindu vegetarian who eats plants makes five to ten times less demand on agriculture and hence the environment than does his Western meat-eating equivalent.

Moreover, our industries that generated most of the past rise in greenhouse gases now expand to meet wealth-enabled demands (housing, appliances, cars, and so forth), and also manufacture higher on the production chain, meaning they take up more land and often pollute more (compare the environmental demands of making a car and a cart).

Finally, wealth makes it easy to adopt unnecessarily wasteful habits, from excessive, non-biodegradable packaging, to large and poorly insulated houses, to concentrated peak electricity use at breakfast and dinner times.

“Demographic transition”: China began its one child policy for urban couples in 1978. AAP/EPA/Wu Hong

Instead of explicit population policies we Westerners largely rely on a “demographic transition” to take care of numbers. That is, we rely on a process in which, as economies get wealthier and require longer, more expensive education while providing increased social security, people choose to reduce their family size. It’s a great idea that works well (while politicians leave it alone).

Nevertheless, there are two important problems with relying on it for everyone. First, this is a slowish transition, typically taking two to three generations or 60+ years to effect. Second, we Westerners largely did it before life expectancies took off, which raises total population “at the other end”.

Now, under the very improvements in public sanitation, medicine, safety, and social security that make small families riskable, the demographic transition is slowed down by increasing life expectancy, especially in developing nations. Can it take effect soon enough to prevent a ruinous human-plague problem for many developing nations, and the planet? How could we speed it up? What else could we throw into help other than the usual extreme nasties (war, plague, famine, forced sterilisation) and the merely hard one-child policy?

The aim of this series

My aim here is not to catalogue the obvious surface problems of our relationship with the natural world around us; they are relatively well known. The aim instead is to dig a little deeper into the underlying dynamics of human societies. There we find processes and problems now too often left undiscussed by our hastening lives and increasingly superficial media.

Only some of the elephant herd is presented. Certainly not all the herd, especially because some of them hide behind the others and are only revealed through persistent prying.

And for those animals presented, the whole elephant is never visible, just the parts I happen to handle; their bodies sometimes vanish into the unexplored gloom. And they intermingle in often complex ways. My aim is to show just enough of each elephant to reveal its presence and so stimulate you to continue exploring it. Please remember this: if your favourite piece of anatomy is missing or a limb seems misshapen, then add it in or correct it yourself! Likewise, for many of the elephants there are no experts, certainly not me; please take my presentations, even if they seem opinionated, as simply goads to explore the issues for yourself.

The herd may look a little bleak. You wont find here any spiritual messages. I have instead focussed on “neutral” underlying elephants, ones that will appear in some form in any human society because they derive from basic underlying processes, though I look at my own Western society most. This will generate elephants enough to think about while we learn to value love and hope in the human spirit.

Comments welcome below.