Lifes Worth Knowing

Force Feeding: Destination Population

In 1%, Current events, Fascinating, Justin, population on December 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm

The monthly force feeding is an attempt for the writers to challenge the other to go somewhere they wouldn’t have gone. December’s challenge is here.

It really is an interesting question, and it exemplifies the kind of “big” thinking that we are attempting to promote on this blog – what consequences will expanding human population have on worldwide biodiversity? There are certainly enough doomsday scenarios out there that predict that the increased human population is going to destroy the world as we know it – and a large number of the flora and fauna as well. In fact, there is enough evidence that can be culled from a cursory glance at the issue to make you feel guilty just for being alive.

But take a look a little bit deeper into the issue, and if becomes clear that overpopulation isn’t the problem exactly – the problem is what kind of people will the next billion(s) be? For instance, take some of the facts that National Geographic was able to put together for their January 2011 issue on world population.

-If the whole world was a densely populated as Manhattan, we could all live in Texas

-If the entire world stood shoulder to shoulder, we would all fit within the city of Los Angeles.

-If current population growth continues – in 2045 we will reach a world population density equivalent to modern-day France.

If we take these statements at face value, the idea of overpopulation as a threat seems a little far-fetched, France certainly isn’t a teeming mass of humanity. However, it is not the number of people who poses the greatest threat – it is the kind of people, and which kind of people is rather surprising.

It has long been known that impoverished people can have a devastating effect on local environments, and with good reason. It doesn’t seem all that important to protect a tree from being cut down if it is the only way for a mother to heat her home, or cook for her children. Without any other options, environmental degradation is certain to follow, the most famous example being Haitian deforestation

Haiti on the left - Dominican Republic on the right

The crippling poverty of Haiti has led to rampant deforestation – which in turn leads to the extinctions of local species, so clearly one of the threats to biodiversity is poverty. National Geographic came to the conclusion in their article that “people packed into slums need help, but the problem that needs solving is poverty, not overpopulation.” And while I will agree that local impoverished populations can have a tremendously negative impact on local biodiversity, it is not the poor masses that prevent the greatest threat to our world’s non-humans, it is the 1%.

Now, I want to take some of the political charge out of the term “1%”, which has become ubiquitous in our national conversation. I want to use it simply to refer to a metaphorical 1% – the people in our world who control and consume the most resources. As Ian Angus and Simon Butler pointed out over at ThinkProgress,

“Ironically, while populationist groups focus attention on the 7 billion, protestors in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume more, control more, and destroy more than all the rest of us put together.”

Unfortunately for my liberal guilt, I am much closer to the 1% than I am to the rest of the 99% of the world. By heating my home, and owning a car, and being a consumer in our economic system, I have outpaced much of humanity and lie much closer to the 1% on a worldwide spectrum than I care to admit. Subsistence farmers in Sudan may clear out some brush to plant crops – but their impact on biodiversity is far less than my decision to make a tuna fish sandwich.

Fish protein makes up 15% of all animal protein consumed by humans, and this pressure has caused worldwide fisheries to collapse. A 2009 report found that 80% of the worlds fisheries have been fully exploited, and the Atlantic Bluefin tuna (which is prized by sushi chefs) has seen a population decline of 80% in 40 years.

Now, compound the problem of overfishing tuna stock with the reality that 20% of all fish pulled out of our waters is “bycatch” meaning it was not the intended target. For every four pounds of fish that we catch in the United States, we kill a pound of unintended marine life. Whether it’s the 35 million red snappers that are caught in shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico every year, or the 300,000 whales and dolphins that die in fishing nets annually off our shores, the biological price of fishing is extremely high.

This refrain is repeated in every industry. Our agricultural crops have seen an incredible loss of diversity as we genetically modify our food to produce higher yields. Consider this graphic from National Geographic:

Dwindling Food Variety

The declining biodiversity in our agricultural crops has been driven by the large seed companies like Monsanto – who create genetically modified crops that produce high yields and are less disease resistant. While these advances in agricultural technology were an important part of green revolution that made it possible to feed the world today, it was done at the cost of diversity. Farms no longer grow a variety of crops –  but end up as enormous monocultures growing one variety of corn, and all it takes then is one viral or fungal mutation to wipe out an entire harvest.

This is just one more example of the 1% (Corporate fisheries/Monsanto) proving to be the greatest threat to biodiversity – and this is before we even address the elephant in the room of the population debate: carbon.

Most of the time, the declining biodiversity debate eventually butts up against the global warming debate – and for good reason. One of the other aspects of a growing population is the upward mobility of people in China and India – who are emulating the West not only in fashion and pop culture, but in consumption as well. Our appetite for oil will only grow larger as populations expand, and this tends to inflame passions of the ideologically entrenched.

But, it is hard to run from data, and the facts are clear on the debate (well, at least outside the Republican primaries) that increased consumption of fossil fuels will lead to global climate change – and that fact is inescapable. And it is not the bushmen burning firewood in the rain forests that are the problem. The United States military (perhaps the most fitting exemplar of the 1%) is the worlds largest consumer of fossil fuels.  To quote Angus & Butler again from ThinkProgress:

“Even in the rich countries of the Global North, most environmental destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines, factories, and power plants run by corporations that care more about profit than about humanity’s survival. No reduction in U.S. population would have stopped BP from poisoning the Gulf of Mexico last year. Lower birthrates won’t shut down Canada’s tar sands, which [is]… one of the most staggering crimes the world has ever seen.”

The argument then is that is doesn’t really matter how many people are on the Earth – but how those people are consuming. The United States has lost 90% of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties in the past century due to the demand for higher yields. The hammerhead shark population has dropped 90% in the Northeast waters due to trawling bycatch. Deforestation of rain forests for the planting of banana and palm trees for multinational corporations costs our global economy $2 trillion dollars for things like soil reclamation and irrigation. Our livestock population has becoming incredibly narrow as well, as breeds that are specialized for harsh conditions are interbred with more numerous domestic stocks to promote the amount of meat/milk they produce – yet lose the traits that were so crucial for their survival.

It is our habits of consumption that are driving down biodiversity across the globe, not the amount of people who tread on the Earth. The problem is not the swarming populations of Tokyo, Mumbai and Mexico City. The problem is the 1%. The problem is us.

Seven Billion or 1%?
Seven Billion Humans and Mass Extinction
Seven Billion and Counting
6 Problems Caused by Shrinking Biodiversity


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