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<< News >>

Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: The world added its seven-billionth person in 2011, but the news came and went quickly while Charlie Sheen news kept on and on. But isn’t population growth the “elephant in the room” that needs serious attention? Can you outline the major impacts of unchecked population growth and what if anything is being done to try to arrest it?
—Aaron Rodriguez, Tucson, AZ

The number of people on the planet has doubled from 3.5 billion to seven billion in just a half century. The most obvious issue with so many of us here is our profligate consumption of dwindling natural resources and the waste and pollution generated in the process. Pictured: A person surviving on waste in the Philippines.

Photo © StockByte/Thinkstock

Unchecked human population growth could be a recipe for doom for the planet and its inhabitants. And it has reached staggering levels in recent years—the number of people on the planet has doubled from 3.5 billion to seven billion in just a half century. While we’ve made great strides in educating people around the world about family planning and birth control, the global fertility rate still hovers around 2.5 children per woman. At that rate, population will grow to 11 billion by 2050 and nearly 27 billion by 2100.

While such a scenario is unlikely given that fertility rates tend to decline as countries develop and modernize, the prospect of a planet with tens of billions of people on it is scary indeed. The first widely published pundit on the potential impacts of too much human population growth was Englishman Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Human Population” warned that violence, genocide, nasty weather, disease epidemics and pestilence would be precursors to widespread famine in a world with too many humans. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he wrote.

History views Malthus as an extremist and many would argue that, despite population having swelled some seven times since his day, we have so far managed to avert a planet-wide “Malthusian catastrophe” whereby population has simply outpaced our ability to feed ourselves. Nonetheless, a 2007 UNICEF report indicated that 10.9 million children under age five die each year around the world, with malnutrition and other hunger-related diseases responsible for 60 percent of the tragedy. And a 2009 World Health Organization and UNICEF study found that some 24,000 children in developing countries were dying each day from preventable causes like diarrhea resulting from lack of access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.

The most obvious issue with seven billion of us here is our profligate consumption of dwindling natural resources and the waste and pollution generated in the process. A recent joint study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Worldwatch Institute found that humans now use 20 percent more renewable resources than can be replaced each year. And while many would say that climate change has eclipsed overpopulation as the major issue of the day, others counter that atmospheric temperatures wouldn’t be growing nearly as much if there weren’t so darn many of us burning so many fossil fuels.

Human population numbers are predicted to trend downward around the world within a few generations. This so-called “demographic transition” is already underway in the U.S. and other developed countries where fertility rates have dropped due to lower infant mortality, increased urbanization and wider access to contraceptives. Given that fertility rates drop as countries develop, and that lesser developed countries have begun to leapfrog ahead in their urbanization and adoption of technology, the United Nations Population Fund predicts that population may peak in the late 21st century and then begin to shrink.

CONTACTS: United Nations Population Fund; Negative Population Growth.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: Given that the presidential election is just around the corner, what can you tell me about each candidate’s environmental track record and positions?
—Jane Miller, Chicago, IL

Environmentalists have cheered several of President Obama’s moves during his first term, but dismay his lack of follow-through on a 2008 campaign promise to label genetically modified foods. Mitt Romney doesn’t have much of an environmental track record, but has been open minded to both regulatory and market-based policy ideas.

© Photoillustration for E Magazine

Just because the environment is getting short shrift this election season due to our nation’s lingering economic woes doesn’t mean that candidates Obama and Romney can ignore the issue.

Environmentalists have cheered several of President Obama’s moves during his first term, including: passage of the Recovery Act and its funding for environmental and habitat restoration and water quality improvements; passage of the first comprehensive National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, the Coasts and the Great Lakes; and the signing of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which expanded land protections and water conservation across two million acres of federal wilderness.

Obama also formed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to bring together federal agencies to help communities nationwide improve access to affordable housing and increase low cost transportation options while protecting the environment. He also established new rules to reduce the negative impacts of mountain-top removal coal mining, set historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, made substantial investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants, and reduced carbon emissions within the federal government.

On the downside, green leaders dismay Obama’s lack of follow-through on a 2008 campaign promise to label genetically modified foods so that consumers know what they are getting when they buy corn, sugar or breakfast cereal. Also, a 2011 Obama decision to deregulate the planting of genetically modified alfalfa and sugar beets incensed organic farmers and environmental leaders. Greens also worry about Obama’s enthusiasm for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes the practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to access natural gas in shale beds under wide swaths of the northeast and western U.S.

If re-elected, Obama would no doubt work to expand U.S. leadership on setting emissions limits in unison with other nations, and has pledged to continue to reduce our dependence on oil so as to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Conservationists are also hopeful that Obama will set aside threatened lands for protection from development as both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did soon before leaving the White House.

While Mitt Romney doesn’t have much of an environmental track record from his days as Massachusetts’ governor, he did get kudos for being open minded to both regulatory and market-based policy ideas. He also supported a 2003 northeastern states agreement to reduce carbon emissions from power plants via a regional cap-and-trade emissions reduction plan. But in 2005 Romney abruptly pulled Massachusetts out of the plan, telling reporters that it didn’t protect businesses and consumers from increased energy costs.

Romney is now pitching an energy plan that that embraces all the options, including fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. But he recently told ScienceDebate.org that he opposes any kind of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system “that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away,” adding that economic growth and technological innovation, “not economy-suppressing regulation,” are key to protecting the environment in the long run.

CONTACTS: Mitt Romney: Energy; Barack Obama: Environment; ScienceDebate.org.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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