Essay on world’s population and the environment
Abstract: World’s overpopulation is as a primary cause of the looming ecological disaster.
The environment is in danger. Human activity is failing to prevent the destruction of our common home, the Earth. The dominant opinion blames for approaching ecological disaster on the global warming. However, the greenhouse effect is only a symptom (one of many), not the cause. The reason is largely about population and its consumption patterns.
We can witness the spread of deserts, overfishing, deforestation, and pollution. These happen intrinsically not because of the global warming. Global warming might be caused by either human activities or the solar variation or both. In this essay I assume the former is the actual (dominant) reason. Then if so, what kind of human activities bring the greenhouse effect? Estimated by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, man-made greenhouse gases come from power stations (21.3%), industrial processes (16.8%), transportation fuels (14%), agricultural byproducts (12.5)%, etc.
What can be done in these sectors? Is the technology a solution in constraining the CO2 emission? Admittedly, power stations and factories can be much less polluted by implementing renewable and energy saving technologies. Let us imagine power plants and industrial processes become 100% CO2 free, and then their combine impact will total 38.1% which is close to proclaimed 40% target by environmentalist by 2050. However, ubiquitous implementation of renewable power plants is seemingly unfeasible by this date. Firstly, the robust nuclear plant building is impossible because of nuclear proliferation security concerns. Secondly, current renewable CO2 free technologies such wind turbines and solar panels cannot meet the growing demand for energy. For example, Denmark, the leading country in renewable energy, has only reached 20% share of sustainable energy, which is still far from 100%. Thirdly, the cost of renewable energy is still considerably higher than that from fossil fuelled power plant. It makes the renewable energy a charity rather than a viable commercial enterprise.
The other sectors can be much less affected by technology. How can transportation fuels be diminished in the age of globalization when people travel abroad more often, of commuting when suburb is sprawling, and of affordable cars? If even everyone starts driving hybrid or electric cars, it does not solve the problem. First, production of any car contributes to CO2 emission. Second, electric cars are charged by electricity produced mostly by coal fuelled power plants. Also, agricultural byproducts are not going to be in less demand in near future because of the growing population and changing diet (more meat and organic products).Moreover, residential waste and land use are unlikely to be balanced by recycled technology and intensive agriculture because of two reasons. Firstly, the dispensable income grows globally fueling consumption at faster rate than recycling as unrecycling products such as plastic beverage bottles are becoming affordable and convenient, discouraging recycling. Second, ever growing demand for staple food takes its toll on soil erosion and deforestation, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
As we see the current technology is not enough to tackle the global warming.
Overpopulation ‘scaremongering’ is not new. Malthus warned people that population tends to grow beyond its means which leads to poverty and hunger. The dire prediction has not come alive. But it does not mean that it will never come. I also argue that population tends to be unsustainable. But unlike Malthus, I believe the human can live without any economic catastrophe caused by overpopulation. However, overcrowded world can demand too much resource from the Mother Earth, seriously undermining her health. Malthus talks about economic consequences. I talk more about environmental ones.
Overpopulation means by definition that the number of people is more than it should be to avoid harming something (economy, peace, environment, wildlife) in my case I have to ask myself. What is the maximum population for the Earth? How many people are environmentally sustainable? There is no fix number. It depends on variables such as technology, people’s consumption habits (values) as well as environmental awareness. So far technology and people’s ecological behaviour (energy saving and recycling) are not enough as the global warming is still threatening. Consumption habits (diet, travel, and house) are changing requiring more resources for each inhabitant.
To elaborate more on maximum number of population, let me introduce my own formula restricted to the global warming to simplify my argument.
Maximum population = Earth renewable capability/Per capita CO2 footprint
The Earth Renewable Capability is the amount of the CO2 emissions which the Earth can take without side effects. Earth Renewable Capability can be increased if we stopped deforestation (forest is the main source of oxygen/CO2 absorption). Per Capita CO2 Footprint is the maximum amount CO2 which should not exceed by an average person. The CO2 footprint is up to us. If we change our consumer habits (driving a car less, eating less meat, and switching to renewable CO2 free energy), than our footprint will be lower. By having a greater Earth Renewable Capability and less CO2 footprint, we can afford having a bigger population.
However, the Earth cannot afford a bigger human population for two reasons. Firstly, the Earth Renewable Capability is unlikely to increase significantly. You cannot instantly replace farms and meadows with forests. It is easier to stop deforestation. Secondly, the CO2 footprint is going to be raised rather than decreased. Chinese and Indian per capita income is growing as a result the Asians are going to consume more meat, cars, international travels, and consumer goods resulting in bigger CO2 emissions. We should not discourage Chinese and Indians to consume more (stay poor). It is simply unfair. Why a typical American is entitled to a house, car, meat, and annual oversea vacation when a Chinese should be restricted to live in a tiny room eating a bowl of rice for life? Also, renewable energy and recycling are out-of-reach for poor countries as they require massive investment, developed energy infrastructure, and are unprofitable.
For that reasons, the Earth is better off to have a slimmer (or stop growing) but a prosperous population living in harmony with the environment.