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The Population Scarecrow

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJune 14, 2011 8:53 PM


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One of these days, we're going to have an adult, non-alarmist conversation about population. That would be a discussion that avoids Soylent Green imagery and talks, instead, about population in place-specific terms (which is how these guys do it). Most public debate on population, however, is conflated with a list of global concerns (peak oil, climate change, resource depletion, etc), which often makes for a simplistic, despairing conversation. This is my one beef with the Dot Earth theme, which is summarized by the tagline at Andy Revkin's twitter feed:

Which Comes First, Peak Everything or Peak Us?

Because I see the two problems as separate, though I know this is not conventional wisdom. It's also a touchy subject. Several years ago, I got into a heated debate with a peer (who is a freelance, environmentally-oriented magazine writer) when I argued that, for the United States, consumption was a much bigger problem than population. I had said that suburban sprawl and our materialistic, big carbon footprint lifestyles--not too many people--was way more responsible for loss of wildlife habitat and decline of ecosystems. After ten minutes, we were practically shouting at each other. Which brings me to this opinion column by William McGurn, in today's Wall Street Journal. He looks back at previous population scaremongering from three decades ago and notes:

The one difference between the 1970s and today is this: Back then, the worry was that poor nations would never advance. Today we know they can and are developing. That's precisely the fear: that as people are eating better and living longer and making their way up the ladder, they will want more of the things that we take for granted--cars, air conditioners, refrigerators, and so on. Indeed, the really big dreamers might even hope one day to have for their families the kind of carbon-footprint maximizing manse that Mr. [Thomas] Friedman has for his family in Maryland.

That would be this kings castle. This is the ultimate challenge for Friedman and other messengers of peak doom: articulating legitimate global capacity concerns in a way that puts everybody on a level playing ground. In other words, whatever prescriptive medicine you are calling on for society to take, you better be prepared to take it yourself. Otherwise, you shouldn't consider yourself a credible messenger. UPDATE: A clarification from Revkin:

To be clear, my notion of "Peak Us" is about the cresting of both human numbers and appetites.

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