17 September 2008

It's the population growth, stupid

The Orion magazine has an on-line interview with James Gustave "Gus" Speth, the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They talk about Mr. Speth’s new book The Bridge at the Edge of the World. I haven't read Mr. Speth's book, but his opinions put forward during the interview neither impressed nor convinced me enough to consider joining the "grassroots citizens’ movement" he is advocating to help save planet Earth.

If I understood him correctly, Mr. Speth is claiming that capitalism has been at the root of our growing environmental problems.

What [capitalism] really cares about is profits and growth, and the rest is more or less incidental. And until we change that system, my conclusion is that it will continue to be fundamentally destructive.
I agree with him on that. But the ultimate cause of ecological degradation, human population growth, is getting sidetracked again. Mr. Speth is heading down the wrong track when he can make a statement like this with a straight face:
But the scale of the impact is really derived from the phenomenal amount of economic growth in rich countries, not from the phenomenal population growth.
Even in scientific discussions of conservation biology the problem of human population growth gets swept under the rug. This was the point I tried to make in this recent post. But is is especially discouraging to hear from an environmentalist that population growth does not have an impact.

I also see a curious contradiction of premises. On the one hand, Mr. Speth is claiming that the developing countries "need to grow," but on the other hand, he seems to be blaming capitalism for many social problems of developed countries, including loneliness and bipolar disorders. Is he saying that the developing countries need capitalistic development now so that they can have their share of problems later?

If Mr. Speth is spearheading a revolution, you can count me out (in).

I also posted these comments in a slightly different and shorter form after the interview at the Orion site (comment #72).


Frank Anderson said...

I agree to a point. Population growth is a major issue, but less so than I think everyone expected it would be thirty or so years ago, for various reasons.

I think our environmental problems can pretty much be boiled down to (1) humans (2) making toxic stuff (for various reasons, but mainly as by-products of producing nice, useful things) and (3) using energy. We could squeeze 10 billion people on the planet and have fewer environmental problems than we have now if, per capita, those 10 billion used less energy and made fewer nasties (or had fewer nasties made on their behalf by companies building their cell phones, cars, iPods, etc.).

The problem in the U.S., Europe, Japan, etc. (the "developed" world) is that, per capita, we use so much energy and generate so much trash and poison. As nations "develop", population growth slows...but in terms of environmental degradation that's often more than made up for by the fact that the people in those developing countries begin to use more energy and generate more toxins. Eventually prosperous nations start to figure out how to live the high life while using less energy and making less toxic stuff, as in Europe (and slowly, the U.S.) today.

Now, whether we can maintain the life styles we like (as China, India, etc. eventually get to that point, too) while lowering energy use/toxin production to avoid making the Earth unlivable, even in the face of continued population growth....I guess we'll find out, won't we?


We can't blame anything on one cause. The ongoing environmental degradation has multiple causes. Human population and economy are 2 of them. But things are not going to get better if we concentrate on one cause and ignore everything else. Therefore, I am not going to "follow" anyone who says "It's the economy, it's not the population."