Friday, July 11, 2014

Today is World Population Day- How Much Do You Know?

Today, July 11th, is designated World Population Day, with the objective to focus global citizens' attention on an unsustainable growth of human numbers beyond the planet's carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity basically means the ability of the planet's resources to sustain existing human numbers. Estimates in the past have run from 2 billion (Isaac Asimov - in his 1976 Barbados lecture) to 3 billion (Richard Heinberg). In any case if human numbers are now approaching 7.5 billion we are way over in any case. 

Another marker is the fact we are currently consuming the equivalent resources of 1.5 Earths per year, which is clearly unsustainable. The excellent BBC documentary on the Earth's population (hosted by Richard Attenborough) entitled: 'How Many People Can Earth Hold?' also provides much needed realistic insights on sustainability and the planet's bio-support capacity.

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 and the greenhouse effect, 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 notable ‘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.

And we won't even get into fracking, with each well fracked requiring up to 5 million gallons of freshwater which is then despoiled for further use. If 10 million frack wells are projected world wide by 2020 (according to T. Boone Pickens in a recent CBS Early Show appearance) then you can do the math and figure out that means 4  million gallons (on average)  x 10 million wells = 40 TRILLION gallons of water lost for human consumption - in a world already running dry from climate change.

The program also  brings up the issue of how to compute the carrying capacity, or rather the bio-support capacity of the planet. If one divides 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.

Population Pollyannas might argue, 'Well, no problem, just get everyone to reduce to Rwandan hectare consumption level'.  Right, and if you can show me any way that would be politically implemented I have a patch of beach in Barbados for you - for free!

Attenborough then presents some of the more draconian solutions that have been used in over-populated 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. Illegal immigration from already overpopulated nations in Central America is making it worse, since each of them will likely adopt consumptive U.S. habits.

How much do you know about population-related issues? Test yourself with this pop quiz of 8 questions:

See also:

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