Humans are currently facing a global triple-threat crisis. Together, population growth, climate change, and biodiversity loss paint a grim view of a future where agriculture has replaced wildlife, and humans and nature alike struggle for survival on a dying, overheated, overpopulated planet. Over the last few months, it has become clear that the magnitude of climate change is greater than even most climate scientists expected. And the effects are being felt all over the world, even in rich western countries, where heat waves, out-of-control forest fires, and massive flooding have been destroying homes and killing thousands. Such events are expected to become more frequent as the climate continues to destabilize.
Furthermore, as the planet gets warmer, many fragile species are pushed toward the limits of their tolerance. Coral reef bleaching events get more frequent, damaging or destroying habitat for thousands of marine species. Melting ice in the arctic and Antarctic reduces habitat for polar bears, penguins, seals, and other mammals and birds. Forest fires wipe out large sections of temperate habitat. This adds to anthropogenic pressures caused by humans such as dams, deforestation, overfishing and by-catch, poaching, unsustainable farming practices, tourism, etc. It’s already too late to prevent this global disaster. But we still have some control over the magnitude.
Recently, there has been a call by 60 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for the UK to use its £11.6 billion climate change budget to fund family planning initiatives (read: contraception) in low-income countries, where population growth is highest and where the effects of climate change are/will be felt most strongly. The argument is that this will lead to smaller populations, healthier children with better futures, an improved economic situation, better education, and more sustainable living. This should in turn reduce pressure on the land, the climate, and biodiversity. By improving women’s rights and human rights, we all benefit.
At first glance, this reasoning seems to make sense. Population growth contributes to climate change and biodiversity loss, as it means more humans consuming and creating waste, and more land being converted to agriculture to meet greater demands for food. Furthermore, it’s difficult to argue against putting more resources into improving women’s rights and human rights across the globe, especially if it helps to solve our current crises.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. While the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss may be most strongly felt in low-income nations, it is the high-income nations who are most responsible. For example, each child born in the U.S. is responsible for 168 times the carbon emissions of a child born in Bangladesh.
China, whose population is shrinking, has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter, but much of that is due to the production of goods that are consumed by the U.S. and other rich nations. Likewise, the majority of deforestation in developing countries goes toward grazing land for cattle and the production of major monoculture crops such as soybean and oil palm. Most soybean production is, in turn, used as feed for livestock, and for biofuels.
Meat, especially beef, is very inefficient to produce, and livestock are responsible for a lot of methane emissions, which contribute to climate change. Likewise, biofuels take valuable land that could be used to grow food, thus causing food prices to rise across the world and disproportionately hurting the poor. Further, any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions biofuels provide is lost when land-use change is factored in.
Increases in demand for meat and biofuels are driven by rising wealth. Population growth, on the other hand, is greatest in poorer nations. Rising incomes reduce population growth while simultaneously increasing energy and resource demands as more disposable income becomes available. In other words, although continuous population growth is certainly not sustainable, the resource usage driving the planet to destruction is primarily driven by wealth. As poorer nations grow richer, the crisis of population growth relieves on its own (globally, population growth has been slowing since 1987 and is now less than half of what it was when it peaked in 1969), while climate change and biodiversity loss continue to escalate due to increased resource and energy demands and waste production afforded by rising wealth.
Therefore, while access to contraception is certainly a worthwhile goal that may improve quality of life in low-income nations, the actual impact it is likely to have on climate change and biodiversity loss is small. It may reduce the effects on the most vulnerable but will do little to reduce the magnitude of change. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be more money put into family planning to improve the lives and futures of vulnerable humans. But climate change and biodiversity loss are urgent crises, and, as in medicine, any real cure must treat the cause.
While population growth may contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, it is not the root cause. Rampant consumerism, unfettered greed, and luxury living standards are. Until we in high-income countries learn to drastically reduce our power and fuel usage, waste production, and meat and dairy consumption, we have no hope of managing these crises. Meanwhile, we reach out a magnanimous hand to drop a few coins in the pots of the hungry and homeless of poorer nations while stealing their lunches and fouling their beds.
So maybe it’s time to look inward. Doctor, heal thyself!
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