Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Having just finished viewing the excellent BBC documentary on the Earth's population (hosted by Richard Attenborough) entitled: 'How Many People Can Earth Hold?', I was instilled anew by a sense of dread and disgust at just how much the political elites have been concealing from ordinary citizens and how close to the precipice we are - as a nation, and a species inhabiting this sole planet.
From the get-go Attenborough doesn't pull punches or mince words, noting that every current major societal, environmental problem- from clogged highways, to overflowing hospital ERs to crowded schools, as well as scarcity of commodities (reflected in their much increased prices) to fouling of our water and atmosphere, can be laid at the feet of too many people on this planet - each needing food, air, water and energy from the time it's born.
Of all the resources, the most critical is water because no one can live without it for very long. Even now, 1 billion people live in water-stressed conditions, meaning that renewable water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita. One noteable ‘State of the World’ report (2000, pp. 46-47), warned that the ever increasing water deficits will likely spark “water wars” by 2025. As one Mexican water-truck driver observes on the BBC special (while making his rounds in Mexico City): "Not very long from now, we will see wars over water. It will be more important than oil. Even now, we can see how little people think of it and how much they waste it". Indeed!
Attenborough reinforces this observation by noting the water intensity of the various beverages, foods we produce. For example, merely to produce one cup of coffee requires the consumption of 120 liters of water. To get a single can of beer requires 150 liters, and to obtain that 'Big Mac' or quarter pounder takes some 8,000 liters! All of this is water that could be put to better use, if changes were made in our highly consumptive diets. Certainly it has me thinking twice about having any beer during football games!
On a more serious note, the program brings up the issue of how to compute the carrying capacity, or rather the bio-support capacity of the planet. If one can divide the total output of bio-productivity (determined in terms of food crops generated per hectare, water volume per hectare, etc.) and divide that by the population, one can get some idea. One expert to whom Attenborough turned, calculated that based on his models - if we wanted a planet with equally shared bio-productive output - each human would get TWO hectares. If we inhabited such a world, then the planet might support 15 billion people. One could get this to eighteen billion if one reduced the hectare average to 0.5 per person, or about that for each Rwandan.
The reality is that the bio-productive output is not equal, and using a map of the world, Attenborough shows the divergences, what with the UK consuming 5.5 hectares per person, and the USA, 9.5 hectares. Thus, the average USA person is consuming more than four times that which is defined as a fair, equal apportioning of resources across all the numbers on the planet. According to Attenborough's expert, by this reckoning of such unequal apportioning of output, the planet can only hold 1.5 billion people. As I noted in a previous blog, when the entire global population is factored into the mix, the world's population is then consuming the equivalent of 1.5 Earths every year. It doesn't take a math genius to see this is unsustainable.
Attenborough then presents some of the more draconian solutions that have been used in over-opulated nations, such as India and China. In the first, forced sterilization saw nearly 8 million males sterilized during Indira Gandhi's reign but that had to be stopped on account of massive public outcry. Then China, trying to escape from its famine-ravaged past enacted "one child only" laws with serious sanctions. While people may seethe at such a law, they enabled China to achieve economic superpower status within a generation and now compete directly with the U.S. As Attenborough notes, if that law hadn't been enacted China would now have 400 million additional people and still be at the mercy of famine from too few grains, foods or ability to import them. Nor would it have the military and civilian infrastructure it displays today - including for alternative energy.
The U.S. doesn't need such draconian methods, only minor changes for example in its tax code. Taking away the child tax credit, or having a sliding scale of increased taxes when people have more children, while giving credits when they adopt more kids in need. The problem is, the U.S. is already overpopulated in terms of the resources it can deliver for 310 million people.
We also need to target and fight against the spurious arguments that we need to have more people in order to pay for what the Right called "entitlements". No we do not, we need more judicious use of our existing economic resources and their allocation. A good start would be to cut the Pentagon budget by 50-75% and use that money to shore up Social Security and Medicare. The only reason these huge budgets remain is because certain communities - like Colorado Springs- have become dependent on the federal tax teat at the expense of other communities (the majority) which lack military bases. Thus, money would be saved by not allowing a $1 billion "combat auir brigade" to be set up in 2014, especially when the U.S. is supposed to pull out of Afghanistan by 2014.
Certainly, if we are unable to make these decisions concerning the allocations of financial and economic resources (predicated on the tax commons) then it begs the question of whether the U.S. (or any nation) would have the will to make hard decisions on apportioning the planet's bio-productive capacity. Hence, the inbuilt inequities are likely to continue and if they do, we'll to find ways to pare down the population to be supported in this instance.