Peak & Prairie
October / November 1999
Letter to the editor
August 21, 1999
This is with regard to the article titled "What's to be done about global population growth" by William N. Ryerson. The author has blamed population growth for the degradation of our environment. He has rightly pointed out that humans use a significant amount of the products of the photosynthesis. But the question is whether the humans who consume more and generate more wastes are the ones who are responsible for the growth of population. Although the consumption of resources and energy is vastly greater in the developed countries, it is the population of the poor countries, which is growing. This analogy can be driven deeper into the society. It is a proven fact that although the rich people in the poor countries consume more energy and resources, it is the population of the poor sections of the society which is on the rise. Almost all demographic surveys across the globe show that higher income groups have a smaller population growth rate compared to that of lower income groups.
The author writes "Our generation of waste products…planet has limits on its capacity to support people." It is true that there is limit to the planet's capacity to hold people, but today's problems have little to do with population growth. It's a direct result of the destructive lifestyle of a small fraction of the world population who have the power to manipulate the resources of the planet for their own myopic objectives. According to a report by National Resources Defense Council, about 122 companies account for 80 percent of the world's fossil-fuel carbon pollution. Of these 122 state-owned and private companies, the top 20 companies accounted for 50 percent of the global emissions. Combined carbon emissions from Exxon and Mobil facilities exceed the combined emissions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Similarly Royal Dutch Shell's carbon emissions exceeds the combined emissions of Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
The world population is primarily rising as a result of the drop in the mortality rate at childbirth and the increase in life expectancy due to safer health practices. Simple hygienic practices like washing hands between meals, boiling drinking water, clean sanitation have increased life expectancy significantly. It is true that rising population is putting an increasing pressure on the natural resources like land and water, but this pressure does not contribute much to toxic wastes or increased greenhouse emissions. Even the burning of firewood in homes does not create the kind of emissions that is being unleashed upon us by the fossil-fuel companies.
Traditionally, communities across the globe have been living off the forests for ages. Today, more harm is being done to these forests by the logging and mining companies than by the population pressure in these communities. More topsoil is lost and degraded by mechanized methods of agriculture and chemical fertilizer based agriculture than by the labor and land intensive methods followed in most of the Third world. More toxic wastes are generated in the petrochemical units of the developed countries than in the impoverished communities of the Third world. Going by the "howling" gap between the rich and poor in the third world, falling per capita production of food grains does not mean much to an average citizen in the third world, because he/she does not have enough food any way. While the rich reap the benefits of the IMF and World Bank loans, the poor foot the bill by curtailment of their welfare benefits and subsidies on which their livelihood depends. The richer communities in the poor countries are not far behind in this race for destruction. Inefficient fossil fuel power plants and fuel guzzling automobiles in developing countries have also aggravated the situation. The third world governments (which mostly represent the rich and powerful) justify these actions by pointing out that these enterprises provide livelihood to an ever growing population. If it is only for the benefit of the people, why is it that even today more than half of the urban population (which works in such industries) in third world does not have access to bare necessities of life.
The myth that population growth is the key cause of all our environmental problems, is a conspiracy against the poor communities of the world. The developed communities, both in the developed and developing countries of the world, would do a great service to our mother earth if they focussed on modifying their own concept of development. Those who are in power must also own responsibility and make amends for the consequences of the misuse of their power.
Ratnesh K. Sharma
In a letter to the editor, Ratnesh Sharma states that "the myth that population growth is the key cause of all our environmental problems, is a conspiracy against the poor communities of the world." In response, we would like to point out some basic facts about overpopulation.
Every 20 minutes, the world adds another 3,500 human lives but loses one or more entire species of animal or plant life—at least 27,000 species per year. World population has doubled in the last 40 years. It took just 12 years to leap from 5 billion to 6 billion, and population is projected to increase to approximately 9 billion in the next 50 years.
In the U.S. where we live, the Census Bureau projects that population may increase from our current 273 million to possibly 518 million in the next 50 years. This is a tremendous increase which will certainly have significant impacts both here and in less developed countries, since developed countries are drawing down the resources of many developing countries in addition to their own.
Pointing out that the populations of developing countries are growing most rapidly, Mr. Sharma asked the question as to "whether the humans who consume more and generate more wastes are the ones who are responsible for the growth of population."
A 1997 report by the National Resources Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/nrdcpro/carbon/part1.html#table1 called the "Kingpins of Carbon—How Fossil Fuel Producers Contribute to Global Warming", listed the world's top 20 producers of coal, petroleum and natural gas. Before 1997, the 20 largest producers of carbon accounted for nearly 45 percent of the world's energy production and nearly 47 percent of carbon emissions. Thirteen of the 20 were state-owned enterprises while seven were investor or privately owned. Since 1997 with various mergers, the top 20 carbon producers would account for almost half of the world's total and the top 20 privately owned companies, considered separately, accounted for more than one fifth of the world's fossil carbon production.
Yes, it is good to point the finger at the top 20 privately owned companies, and ask them why aren't they doing something about global warming (it looks like Shell Oil is—see http://www.shell.com/splash2/). However, a more accurate question is: what about the other 4/5ths of the carbon produced? Shouldn't we be concerned about what the rest of the world is doing with a resource of only limited supply, and whose burning causes global warming? What if we succeed in cutting down on the consumption of 1/5 of the world's supply of fossil fuels? Should we ignore the other 4/5, which no one can afford to cut?
A more telling tale is told in Appendix B of the same report, "World Carbon Dioxide Emissions", http://www.nrdc.org/nrdcpro/carbon/appb.html, from the "Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels by Country—1997". Only the top seven are shown below:
|United States||23.884 percent|
|United Kingdom||2.518 percent|
The U.S. looks pretty greedy, doesn't it? But China isn't far behind, and India is gaining. In fact, when the total for all developed countries is combined and compared to the total for undeveloped countries they surprisingly come out about the same (48 percent and 52 percent, respectively). It seems odd to think that the third world is consuming so much, but the answer is in the alarmingly large numbers of people in the third world. They are outstripping their resources and need all the assistance they can get. There are two additional factors to consider—1) the table does not take into account agricultural burning, which occurs in large parts of the undeveloped world, and contributes considerably to global warming, and 2) that the population of the third world is increasing much more rapidly than that of the developed world. By 2000 the balance could be even more skewed.
Mr. Sharma's statement: "Combined carbon emissions from Exxon and Mobil facilities exceed the combined emissions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines," and similar comparisons, such as "The average person in the United States consumes 260 lbs. of meat per year, while in Bangladesh, the average is 6.5 lbs.",—do not consider the complete picture and do not provide sufficient information to make decisions about whether world population is a problem.
One can not merely blame inequities in consumption between developed and undeveloped countries for environmental degradation in third-world countries. Nor can one blame existing power structures alone—governments and industry—for hunger and meager quality of life in developing countries. In fact, the populations of most developed and developing countries are increasing at rates that will continue to tax the resources of all nations and the planet as a whole. Unless population growth is quickly curtailed, the result will be degraded quality of life, both for humanity and for the planet we are striving to protect.
Fred Elbel, www.ecofuture.org/ecofuture/populat.html
Population Chair, Rocky Mountain Chapter
Karen Gaia Kempster, www.overpopulation.org
Population Chair, Motherlode Chapter
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