January 2012

Why population matters

At the end of October, the world’s population officially reached 7 billion. A few weeks later, conservationists announced that the Western black rhino of Africa had gone extinct and the Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam was likely extinct as well.

The second announcement was not intended to highlight the impacts of the first one, but it certainly did.

Since the hue and cry raised about population back in the ’70s (remember Paul R. Ehrlich and “The Population Bomb”?), people have ceased to talk about it much. Part of the reason is surely because Ehrlich’s dire predictions of widespread famines turned out to be erroneous. Yes, there are famines in the world today, but they are largely attributable to economic inequities and geographic and political barriers to food distribution rather than a shortage of food worldwide. The earth can theoretically feed 7 billion and many billions more.

But that doesn’t mean population isn’t a concern – only that it’s a concern of a different sort.

Ever-growing numbers of people don’t automatically mean starvation for some, but growth does exacerbate many problems: water shortages, air pollution, climate change, disposal of human waste (which is becoming an enormous problem globally), and pressures on wildlife.

There are those who argue that you cannot have too much of a good thing (human life). They will say that the entire population of the planet can fit into one square mile, or some such thing, so there is plenty of room for all. But that’s obviously irrelevant – we can’t all sleep, exercise, defecate, and feed ourselves in one square mile or many thousands of square miles.

Another myth about growth is that those of us who worry about overpopulation secretly want to kill off billions to make a bigger playground for ourselves. There may be folks who feel that way, but we aren’t acquainted with any of them. We believe that everyone who is born on this planet should have the right to a long and healthy existence at a standard of living as good as that enjoyed in the United States. The real question about population isn’t just whether we can feed people enough to keep them alive. It’s about quality of life.

We believe everyone should have clean drinking water, ample food, clean air, indoor plumbing, safe living conditions, and access to transportation.

But more than that, we should all have the ability to get away from other people if we want – to find solitude on public lands, to see genuinely wild creatures and wild landscapes, to experience our ties to the natural world and enjoy its incredible richness and complexity.

But as more people crowd into open spaces, that becomes increasingly difficult.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a quarter of all mammal species are at risk of extinction. That doesn’t even mention birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. (You can see a short video of some animals on the “red list” of endangered species at http://www.iucn. org/about/work/programmes/species/? 8548/Another-leap-towards-the- Barometer-of-Life.)

The issue of overpopulation isn’t just about survival. It’s about quality of life. And it needs to be brought back into the forefront of every discussion about the environment, endangered species, and wilderness.

We absolutely do not want to see government mandates about how many children anyone can have. But we do need to change our thinking, to realize that a declining birth rate isn’t necessarily bad, and to find a better model for the future than the old one of “growth is always good.”