The Coastal Post - December, the six-day event.

Population, Consumerism And The Environment

By Mike Lowey

The environment has recently been pushed to center stage by the upcoming international conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan. For the past 200 years of global industrialization, humanity has been ignoring a number of growing problems. Each generation has passed on the environmental and social responsibility for their nations to the next. Each successive generation has inherited not only the responsibility for their own actions, but must also pay the price for the rapid industrialization that came before. During this time, the human population has increased nearly 905% (U.S. Census Bureau). The amount of sacrifice necessary for one generation to turn things around will be huge. The consequences of irresponsibility have always been less than the sacrifices necessary to make things right, until now. Humanity is finally faced with an environmental problem that could cause our extinction. Global warming is a direct consequence of 200 years of irresponsible industrialization and reproduction. We are now left with no effective painless choices.

President Clinton has proposed a package of measures that has the highest likelihood of being implemented with the smallest fight. His proposal would address only the most immediate symptoms but would leave the underlying causes of global warming in place. Clinton's proposal is unwise, because it fails to simultaneously address all three of the underlying causes of global warming: overpopulation, ever-increasing levels of individual consumption, and environmentally destructive production methods.

The Clinton proposal fails to address the fundamental cause of global warming, overpopulation. In the past 200 years, the human population has grown from about 630 million to about six billion! To put this in perspective, it took from 1000 to 1750 for the population to double from 300 million to 600 million. We have added 300 million people to the population in the last four years! An increase that once took 650 years now takes four. The population is projected to rise to over nine billion by the year 2050. The process of reversing population growth (while avoiding massive death, is very slow. Populations tend to keep expanding even after reproductive rates have been reduced due to a large proportion of the population entering reproductive years. This phenomenon is known as Demographic Momentum (Ehrlich, Population Bomb). Reversing population growth trends is similar to piloting a supertanker, all moves must be planned and implemented far in advance. Each new person contributes to global warming. Global warming could be brought under control solely by means of population reduction.

The administration's proposal fails to address the vastly increased amount of resources consumed by the average person today. The American culture of superconsumerism has proven to be so seductive that cultures around the world are abandoning long-held beliefs and values (all of them more environmentally sound than our own) in favor of the instant gratification offered by the American way of life. Every developing country has the lifestyle of the world's greatest polluter as its goal. A world of nine billion people, all expecting to consume at the rate that Americans enjoy, won't last for long. Once again, this problem can be contained by attack on three fronts simultaneously: reducing population, reducing expectations of ever-increasing levels of consumption, and creating more environmentally-friendly methods of production.

By reducing the population we automatically reduce the impact of individual consumption. A small population could still consume at a high level without the environmental damage of large one. Greener production methods could allow advances in the quality of life without additional environmental damage. One of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect is the automobile. Imagine a world with nine billion people all believing that it is their prerogative to drive their own fossil-fuel-powered car wherever they go. The self-centered, immediate gratification culture we live in is responsible for global warming. In order to fight global warming we must work to change people's expectations of ever-increasing levels of consumption.

While more environmentally-friendly production methods are a vital part of any plan to combat global warming, President Clinton's plan unwisely ignores any other solutions. The underlying assumption in Clinton's plan is that global warming can be brought under control purely by changing production methods. Any plan to control global warming without population control as its primary focus will be a useless stopgap. Obviously, this would include President Clinton's proposal.

Dr. Ehrlich explains in great detail the suicide course humanity has put itself on through uncontrolled reproduction. He reminds us that technology has been able to avert many environmental and medical disasters in the past, but humanity keeps raising the stakes by insisting on unregulated reproduction. Clinton's proposal relies almost entirely on technology to solve the problem for us.

Any plan would need to include cleaning up industry and many of the proposed actions could be effective in that regard. Shifting energy production away from fossil fuels and into nuclear, tidal, wind, solar and hydroelectric power would almost completely eliminate the production of greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately, neither the technology nor the political will exists to implement such a complete switchover. Recent advances promise to sharply reduce emissions from cars. President Clinton has referred to two key examples, renewable, crop-based fuels, and new electro-chemical fuel cells. Fuel cells are a new system that dramatically reduce emissions by directly converting hydrocarbon fuel into electricity and heat, increasing energy output efficiency by about 40%.

Both Honda and Toyota have built prototype fuel cell-powered cars.The possibility of powering such cars with renewable fuels like methanol present us with our first realistic opportunity to meaningfully cut our dependence on fossil fuel. Our dependence on fossil fuels developed precisely because of its cheapness and accessibility. Any plan to reduce greenhouse gasses must include assisting developing nations to switch to more environmentally-friendly means of production.

Clinton's proposal fails to provide meaningful penalties for countries that fail to meet the agreed upon goals. Are we going to have another useless "good faith" agreement like the one in Rio in 1992? The President's proposal is all carrot and no stick. There are obvious short-term economic advantages to environmentally unsound industrialization. That is why it has been the dominant pattern for the past 20 years. If environmentally conscious production were easier and more efficient in the short term, we would all be doing it already. How should we deal with countries that fail to meet their goals? Trade sanctions make sense. Unfortunately, the political will necessary to create a global plan that addresses overpopulation, irresponsible levels of consumption, and environmentally dangerous means of production while providing a mechanism of enforcement just does not exist.

At the moment, the wealthy industrialized nations produce a disproportionate enough amount of greenhouse gasses that much of the responsibility has fallen on us to change. We must keep in mind, however, that the rest of the world has our lifestyle as its goal. The average person in the United States or Canada is responsible for the emissions of about 20 tons of carbon per year compared with about three tons per person per year in developing countries. The frightening fact is that the poorer majority of the population is quickly closing that gap. Unless we work quickly to simultaneously reduce both the population and our expectations of high consumption lifestyles, all of our efforts to combat global warming will be in vain.

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