Environment

The Population Scare

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 17, 2010 7:49 AM

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Before global warming, the issue that worked up enviros was population. It's mostly a sleeper these days because of the (religious and racial) politics surrounding it, so all the big green groups shy away from it, or otherwise tread (very) carefully. But earlier this week, Fred Pearce snapped the slumbering giant awake with this post, which I largely agree with. After outlining how the "population bomb" is being defused, Pearce turns to the real problem:

Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count. And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their populations.

You can't imagine how much this enrages people who insist that, after climate change, overpopulation represents the greatest danger to the planet. This is not to deny that humans can and do overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. But it's place specific. Often we see it happening in some of the most impoverished lands, where culture, political instability and a marginal environment is at work. This is not to say it can't happen in rich places. For example, in the Southwest of the United States, where I've covered a lot of environmental and archaeological stories, we know that the arid, drought ridden, water-challenged landscape is going to shrivel up beyond the point of sustainability for the booming population that has flocked there in recent decades. It's inevitable. History tells us this. But people love it out there (and I'm not just talking Vegas!), as do I. So we've got all these sprawling desert cities that got that way not because of overpopulation, but because of a demographic shift and lifestyle preferences (gotta have those lush lawns and golf courses in Phoenix and Tucson). Still, we're a rich country by most of the world's standards, so we can afford to keep up the mirage that we're immune to overshoot. Now, in the U.S. it so happens that the population zealots have joined in an unholy alliance with the anti-illegal immigrant bigots, making for toxic bedfellows. Don't get me started on that. UPDATE:

In the comments, Jonathan Gilligan, an Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, offers Bangladesh as a telling example of a nation that has made major quality of life strides but still has limiting "place-specific aspects" that could derail its progress, especially when factoring in anticipated impacts from climate change. Gilligan also offers some additional insights here.

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