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by Allen Greer – January 16, 2008


There’s something missing in all the discussion about the three most pressing environmental problems of the times: climate change, the lack of further arable land for agriculture, and water shortages. To date, almost all the comment has been about the need for more technology and almost nothing has been said about stabilising human population. And yet stabilising the population at present or even slightly lower levels might be an easier and more durable solution than developing and applying increasing levels of technology.

China’s one-child policy has led to development with less environmental damage. [Picture: AFP]

We are averse to thinking this way because historically population growth has been an easy means of economic growth. We also like to believe that our technology has allowed us to break free from the resource constraints that limit the populations of every other species. Indeed, it’s almost as if we believe that in limiting our population we would be showing a loss of nerve as a species. But while a steadily growing population may have once contributed to an improving quality of life for all of humanity, it is now slowing the shift to a better quality of life for many and leading to a declining quality of life for others. And perhaps, even more alarmingly, population growth and its handmaiden, consumption, may now be driving the need for new technology at a faster pace than it can be reliably developed and applied.

Consider climate change. Ever since our lineage’s mastery of fire 400,000 years ago, our first big technological breakthrough, we have relied largely on burning carbon-containing materials for our energy, a process that also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, the natural biogeochemical cycles (a set of time-tested, worldwide and free natural technologies) could deal with the emissions. But now our sheer numbers and per capita consumption have overwhelmed the capacity of these cycles, such that the emissions are accumulating rapidly and changing the climate.

One of the most favoured technological solutions to this problem is clean coal. But clean coal, which involves not one but several new technologies, is a hope, not a reality. What if it doesn’t work, or works only one-third as well as we hoped? In view of this uncertainty, it would be prudent to at least simultaneously start stabilising human population, which we know we can do.

Nuclear energy is another technology touted as a solution to the problem of accumulating carbon emissions. But again, there is a significant unsolved problem with the technology: what to do with the enormous amounts of waste that no biogeochemical cycle can deal with in a meaningful time frame? Again, why not stabilise population instead of betting the house on a technology with at least one severe problem that has remained unsolved for more than 50 years?

Another problem with the application of technology to overcome limited natural resources is that even when it works, it is never permanent. The inexorable increase in human numbers ultimately over-takes it, leading to yet another scramble to find the next technological solution as quickly as possible.

Take, for example, the technological solution to the problem of hunger. No sooner had the enhanced yields achieved by traditional selective breeding in the green revolution been made available to the hungry millions than we were told that we now urgently needed genetic engineering to help feed a new generation of hungry humans who continue to number in their millions. You have to wonder if our food supply problems would not be less severe today if we had worked to stabilise or reduce human population at the same time as we made the green revolution.

Another problem is that each new advance makes it difficult to go back and retrieve earlier and simpler technologies that worked well. The technological path almost invariably starts with something simple, inexpensive and diffusely owned, and progresses increasingly towards something that is complex, expensive and narrowly owned. Each step reshapes jobs, professions, industries, laws, skills and habits, all of which entrench the new technology. For example, each step along the path towards an agriculture based on genetically modified plants and animals (all thoroughly patented) means that, increasingly, we are dependent on Agriculture International Inc for our food.

Technology can also alter the condition of the things to which it is applied, particularly entities and processes in nature. Technology can turn something nature-made into something effectively human-made. For example, what begins as a free-flowing river ends up as a dammed, conduited, power-producing, flood-mitigating, open irrigation channel. The loss of natural states and processes may be of no concern to some. But to others, what remains of the natural world is now more valuable than the infinite number of unborn humans for which even these remnants will inevitably be sacrificed if unlimited population growth continues. One remaining wild creek at the tip of Cape York under the control of an Ecotourism International Inc is not the same thing as one real creek within a bike ride of every kid in Australia.

Stabilising population at present or even slightly lower numbers would not be that difficult to achieve. In the West, the reproductive rates of most national populations are such that stability at existing or slightly lower numbers could be achieved with a modest tweaking of economic, social and immigration policies. For example, Australia’s natural reproductive rate is 1.85 children a woman, just below the replacement rate of 2.1. Immigration makes up the difference and a bit more to give us our growth rate of 1.5 per cent. Among non-Western countries, the most populous, China, has a policy that puts it within striking distance of a stable population. And although China’s one child policy is undoubtedly coercive, it has made it easier for the country to achieve a greater development with less environmental damage than would have otherwise been the case. Indeed, the second most populous country, India, may well wish it had a population growth closer to that of China (1.6 v 0.6 per cent) as it develops.

It also has to be remembered that in Australia we are feeding not only our own population of 21million but also an additional 160million or so in other countries. Hence, despite the uncertainty of climate change, limited arable land and limited water supplies, we have committed the country to feeding about 180 million people annually, and that figure is growing. It is no wonder, therefore, that the spruikers of the new food technologies such as those that genetically transform food organisms to live in marginal environments are telling us to be quick, sign here, even though these technologies could have any number of collateral effects that may be hard to undo. It is sobering to remember that these technologies are now deemed to be urgent because earlier technologies, which were supposed to solve similar problems and were sold with an equal sense of urgency, were, in the end, simply swamped by relentless population growth.

It is true that per capita consumption is an important contributor to the problem of limited resources. However, population growth is the primary contributor, because each birth sets in train a lifetime of consumption at some level. In contrast, a birth foregone means a lifetime of consumption foregone even at its most subsistent level.

There are now more than six billion of us. Is another billion of us going to make life better overall or worse? Isn’t it time to divert the resources that will go into increasing the quantity of humans, into increasing their quality of life? Is there any problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer of us?

There will never be a better time to think about the benefits of stabilising the human population at present, or even lower, levels. Humanity has, of necessity, dedicated this century to dealing with the nearly intractable problems of climate change, lack of additional arable land and not enough freshwater. And because a stable population would make a lasting contribution to solving these, as well as similar problems that are likely to arise, it seems irresponsible not to discuss the idea along with all the technological solutions being considered. As an economist might say, it’s time to look at the problems arising from limited natural resources from the demand side as well as the supply side.

Allen Greer is a biologist based in NSW.


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