ChicagoMike wrote a comment to the last post What we grow, and a slight digression, and it deserved a longer response than I could fit into a comment, and it is a vital and timely conversation to be having, so here is Mike's comment, and my response below.
ChicagoMike: I do have to disagree on a key point though. This planet is really only able to support 1 to 1.5 billion people. Population is the problem. Humans are "stealing" sunshine from the past (fossil fuels) which support agriculture and society on a massive scale. When the fossil fuels run low (obviously a lot of differences on the estimate), the agriculture and technology which support our current and growing population will fail, and Humanity will be making a huge adjustment. Mainly, shedding about 80% of its population. These events will not happen overnight in some cataclysm, but will occur over decades. All large cities will become unsupportable and the world will have some heavy times ahead. This is a long way off, but it is almost inevitable. Nuclear power plants, windmills, and solar cells do not make fertilizer. Lets just hope that we don't irrevocably damage the planet in the readjustment. Check out The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.
Grow the Change: ChicagoMike, I am familiar with the over-population theories, and sympathize with them to a degree since I thought this way at one point along my environmental path. These theories largely came out in the 80s, along side the environmental conservation movement that saw “nature” as something untouched and pure, and human interaction as the problem. Studies have come out since then, showing how human activity has shaped the ecology of this planet for at least 80,000 years, for better or for worse (see anthropology studies from Aboriginal Australians). Out of this has come a new theory of environmentalism that does not look at the conservation of nature, so that “nature” can take care of itself, but rather sustainable resource management. Meaning stewardship, we have inherited the earth from previous generations who shaped it, for better or worse, and we are responsible for handing these natural resources on to the next generation.
The reason I no longer believe that over-population is the dominant problem, or even the root cause of many of our ecological crises, is that our “modern” systems of production, food, manufacturing, transportation, etc, are lavishly and shamefully wasteful and inefficient. This unthrifty attitude arises from a market based on cheap and supposedly abundant non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels and fossil water. Take food as an example. Studies have come out giving conservative estimates that 30% of food is wasted (thrown out, spoiled, left in the field) along each way station from the farm to the plate, in our modern, industrial, fossil fuel based, Green Revolution, farming model. So if a farm produces 1000 lbs of produce, about 30% is lost (due usually to market considerations, either ripening later, or not conforming, etc), so 700 lbs goes to the processor/packager and another 30% is lost, 490 lbs head to the retailer of which 30% is lost (as many of you dumpster divers can attest to), 343 lbs makes it to the family table of which 30% is thrown out. The original farm used up the fossil fuels as well as fossil water to produce 1000 lbs of food, and only 240 lbs actually made it into a body as nourishment. Now, most of you reading this practice more efficient methods of bringing the food from the farm to the table, and either compost or feed your livestock with your table scraps. Out of 1000 lbs produced in our garden, without any fossil fuel or fossil water, we use 100% either on the table, in the barn, or in the compost pile. As is true in many gardens and sustainable food systems, but still not the majority.
Food production is just one example, this model of inefficiency is almost universal. The power companies lose a large portion of the power they produce pushing it along the lines to your house, internal combustion engines are stupidly inefficient on fuel, Canada still allows 5 gallon flush toilets for goodness sake, and in the Tar Sands of Alberta they use 2 barrels of oil to produce 1, I could go on and on about the reckless waste of our natural resources. And the biggest myth is that “we need fossil fuels to actually feed all of these people”. We do not, but our economic infrastructure does. The markets of the rich nations would fall (or be transformed), and they threaten to take the rest of the world with them. But I am sick of being blackmailed into apathy, and I know I am not the only one.
So the way I see it, we actually have the choice, either an 80% “shedding” of population, meaning mostly children, elderly and economically vulnerable people, or we can reduce our consumption of resources by 80% simply by not wasting them, and using our intellect to build smarter more efficient systems. I find it interesting that the estimated carrying capacity of the planet is 1 to 1.5 billion people, because I think this is just about the population of the “western” nations, and at our current use of resources, that is all this earth can support. These theories of overpopulation run dangerously close to eugenics and ethno-centricism. This is not a personal attack on you ChicagoMike, this is a Post-Structural and Post-Colonial critique of these theories of overpopulation, see Foucault or Spivak.
Often cited in the over-population theory is the desertification of marginal lands around the Sahara. Overgrazing and overharvesting of wood for cooking fires are cited as the cause of the expansion of the desert, and the loss of arable land. Narrowly speaking, this is true. But is it not true that if they had planted a tree for every one they cut, the desert would not advance? So is it not a management issue, rather than a population issue? So it is also an education issue.
It is perhaps the case that this earth is at or near it's carrying capacity, especially with climate change on the horizon. The question I ask is why has the population increased so dramatically in the last 30-50 years? Is it really fossil fuels and fossil water, or is it the money that has been made from mining these resources? I believe it is economic development that encourages population booms, and not necessarily access to natural resources. And as more money is made from the sale and consumption of these resources, they become less available to the increased masses of poor, who then become an easily exploited labor pool.
It's a complex issue, but I firmly believe there is more than enough for everyone alive right now on this earth to be nourished, clothed, housed and enabled with dignified work. This is not an utopian ideal, but an ethical principle. We can live without a speculative and debt-based economy, and we can grow food, transport ourselves, produce power and goods, communicate and innovate without fossil fuels. The problem is, I believe, that most of us are taking more than is our share, if we believe it is a human right to have an equal share of our ecological inheritance. And yes, that share gets smaller as population increases, and as adults, our share is transferred every time a child is born. As great as the ecological crisis is, it is also the easiest to solve. Even greater, and more problematic because it is a philosophical and ethical issue, is the human rights crisis we are facing.