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The world is too small for us

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Crowded, isn’t it?

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Improving environment starts with tackling overpopulation

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Do not replenish the earth

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Limits to Growth

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The more men, the more jam

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Couples wanting children are doubly responsible for the future

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Overpopulation = overconsumption

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Stop the exhaustion and pollution of the earth

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Too little prosperity for too many people

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We love people, but not their number

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We cannot let humanity happen

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Wednesday, 04 August 2010 13:16

Overpopulation is a choice

Paul Gerbrands in the April 2008 issue of the Dutch magazine Civis Mundi
 
History
The Industrial Revolution arrived in England around 1750 and spread gradually throughout the world from there. Especially in Europe and the US, this was the beginning of a new era. The industrial exploitation of the masses initially resulted in an increase of poverty and a decrease in life expectancy.
But things changed for the better when socialist parties and trade unions started improving the living conditions of the working class. At the end of the 19th century, the quality of life slowly enhanced, adaptations were made to housing conditions and the quality of food improved. As health care improved, life expectancy gradually increased.
The last two centuries show an explosive growth in the world’s population. The Dutch population, for instance, has grown from 2 million people in 1800 to 10 million people in 1950 (see the enclosed charts). As a result of the fact that many people moved to urban areas in search for work, the population urbanized. So, when only 2% of the world population lived in cities in 1700, approximately 50% of the population lived in urban areas in 2000. The modernization of the Western economies, urbanization and population growth together resulted in the mass production of goods. Mass production enabled entrepreneurs to increase their sales and it allowed customers to expand their choices. The capitalist market did not encounter many problems in obtaining raw materials, since there was an increasing worldwide supply of materials coming from the colonies that the market could draw on. Thanks to colonial and imperialist measures, well-guarded supply lines from the most distant places on earth guaranteed the delivery of everything that was useful and needed. This was the first step to the exhaustion of the earth.
 
Karl Marx
The whole world seemed an inexhaustible reservoir that the white imperialists could use for their own satisfaction. Their military preponderance and their feeling of superiority degraded the sellers of raw materials and food, who usually had a slightly dark coloured complexion, to humble suppliers.
And when in fact it was wise for the Europeans to emigrate to heavenly spots for political, religious or economic reasons, the European colonists did not encounter many problems there, much to the sorrow of the autochthonous population, who often did not think much of the all those domineering whites. The sky seemed the limit for Europe. Hunger would become a thing of the past.
Sustainability was not a problem. However, in 1798, Malthus wrote his ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvements of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers’. He argued that population growth would eventually lead to food shortage. Since his warnings stood in the way of progress, not everyone was pleased with them. Adam Smith, who was later regarded as the father of economics, also showed his concern about the rapid economic developments. His book ‘Wealth of Nations’ was published in 1776. According to that book, national governments were arguing too much about the distribution of raw materials in the world. Smith’s book gained more support than Malthus’ did. But the publication of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 received the most response. Once the machine of mass production was going at full speed, the social and political consequences of the industrial revolution were named there, one by one .
 
Al Gore
Many people still think of Malthus as a troublesome pessimist. And they are right, according to the optimists, now the food problem seems under control. Irrigation, artificial fertilizers, genetic manipulation and plant breeding are used to meet the high demands of the numerous modern consumers, thanks to extremely developed technological methods. Apart from a little bit of famine in local areas, there do not seem to be too many problems in the rest of the world. Many of those technical scientists even believe that the continuation of welfare in the world is in good hands with them. Environmental organizations sometimes have ethical objections to issues like plant breeding. But both technical scientists and environmentalists are committed to the Western philosophy that growth is the only way to progress. That is why they almost automatically try to find solutions within the economic growth model. Apart from the growth model, they do not have fundamental solutions for doing away with food shortages that will not put a fundamental stop to the present exhaustion of the earth.
Even Al Gore only tries to push back the pollution of progress and for electioneering purposes, he refuses to bring up population growth and increased prosperity as a fundamental view. He has a very impressive story to tell, but it does not sustainably solve the food shortage problem or the environmental problems. The European Union has even chosen to grow more plants from which fuel can be extracted for the generation of energy. That this could lead to even more hunger for the poorest people in the world, due to the increasing world food prices, seems to be less important.
 
Modern capitalism
Since the collapse of the communist alternative, capitalism has gained a lot of influence worldwide. It seems that in the former communist countries, it has even caught up with the call for personal freedom. The European Union (EU) has copied the American free trade policy. Economic growth, mass production and overconsumption have set the scene. We have spread our ideals the farthest and poorest corners of the globe as solutions for all economic problems. Anti-globalists seem to be the only ones who really have problems with that. In the meantime, 16 million Dutch people use the same amount of drinking-water, food and energy as 185 million people in Bangladesh use. Western economic progress seems inviolable. Trade agreements like the agreement signed in Lomé in 1975 and recent pleas to grant credits to entrepreneurs in developing countries that are starting a small business, do not seem to be anything more than well-intentioned digs at Western ascendancy.
And in this scenario, the nearly constantly growing population in developing countries is longing for the same level of welfare as is presently available in the Western world. The rapid population growth in those developing countries and the advancing industrialisation in countries like China and India, need more raw materials for the generation of energy, high-quality food and clean drinking-water. Earth is doing overtime.
Since World War II, Europeans have become more aware of the polluting and exploiting role they play in the world. The fact that they are so generously charitable, does them credit. However, they are particularly attached to their own welfare and comfort. One of the reasons for the recruitment of immigrations after World War II, was the fact that Dutch employees were reluctant to do the dirty work. Even now, developing countries are deprived of their own highly qualified personnel because we need these people to secure our economical growth. We should ask ourselves whether this is a fair attitude to be striving for sustainable welfare for every world citizen according to European standards regarding quality food and sufficient energy.
 
Ecological footprint
Since 16 million Dutch people do not have enough fertile soil at their disposal for their own food production, they make an appeal to the Southern Hemisphere for that, among other things. But not all soil there is appropriate and available for agriculture and stock breeding. There is approximately 14.5 billion hectares of land and 36 billion hectares of sea on the entire globe. When we exclude the ice caps, the deserts, the areas with a semi-arid climate and land lying fallow or lying waste, there is approximately 9 billion hectares of land available for habitation and other human activities. If we divide the available productive surface of earth in total by the present number of over 6 billion people, we arrive at approximately 1.5 hectares of fertile land per inhabitant. But 1.5 hectares is not enough for a Westerner to live on sustainably, year in year out. For the 16 million people living in the Netherlands, this is impossible.
Each individual inhabitant of the Netherlands presently claims approximately 4.8 hectares of land for his total consumption. That is significantly more than the 0.24 hectare that is actually available for a Dutch person within the borders of the Netherlands. But it is still more than the 0.05 hectares an Egyptian has at his disposal. On the other hand, it is significantly less than the 32,000 hectares a Canadian has within his own country. The increasing demand for food on the world market, changing to biofuels, the desertification and bad harvests have a bad influence on the food price as it is. The consequences of the sea level rise can be added to that in the near future. A lot of the fertile farmland in delta areas and in lowland plains will become brackish and go to waste for the production of food. In the absence of food in September 2007, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) even had to consider reducing the rations in its refugee camps.
 
Less consumption
For half of the present world population of over 6 billion people, fighting hunger and undernourishment is a time-consuming part of the every day worries. Wealth and welfare are unattainable goals for this group of people. According to the United Nations, there will be 11 billion people by the end of this century. In my opinion, that will initially lead to a rise in migration, followed by a proletarian world revolution by the malcontent on this globe. Only if we use an absolutely austerely vegetarian diet, like the monks in Nepal use, the earth might just about manage to sustainably feed as many as 11 billion people. On the condition that every form of luxury is ostracized, that is. But if we want to maintain the way of eating and living as we do in the European Union and the US today, probably only 3 or 4 billion people in the entire world can be fed sustainably.
The factor energy plays a very important role in striving for maintaining the current standard of living in the rich West. That is not very sustainable yet, since it took us two hundred years in the West to use up fossils that the earth took billions of years to make. As energy will be playing a bigger and bigger role in the third world in increasing the standard of living, the price of a drum of oil on the world market will rise to over 300 dollars within a few years. That makes more nuclear energy a tempting thought. If some Dutch people are interested in a just distribution of food and energy in the world, those people will have to settle for what a world citizen on average is entitled to themselves. This seems to be a more useful task for trade unions and labour rights and consumer rights defenders than calling for a strike when there is just a minor loss of welfare.
 
Optimal population pressure
But welfare reduction is not an issue that is up for discussion with the spoilt people in the Netherlands. The only serious option then is the reduction of the present population pressure. By pushing back the present population from 485 people per km² to 79 per km², the present ecological footprint of 4.8 would remain intact without damaging the present standard of living. The accompanying ecologically safe number of inhabitants for the Netherlands in that situation is estimated at 2.7 million people. In the enclosed table is indicated per EU country what the sustainable number of inhabitants should be. It is assumed that every available resource can be used sustainably if the population in the EU is smaller, so that the burden is not transferred to the rest of the world The footprint of every country in the EU and of the EU in total cannot be larger than footprint that is necessary to keep the present sources of life intact. But because people consume the resources from all over the world through trade, the footprint in this table has been calculated on the basis of the resources on the entire planet. A separate table on that is not available. There are obviously enormous differences between countries themselves as regards to the present production capacity and present consumption. Therefore, the standard hectare in the table is a weighted average of the productive surface of all productive land in the world. Fishing grounds are taken into account also. This table does not pretend to be more than an indication and is only meant as a challenge for further discussion.
 
A just world? What do you mean?
Marx has been an inspiration for employees and their political parties and trade unions. Salary increases, less exploitation, nationalizations, workers’ self-management, social benefits and even capital growth sharing were intermediate stages on the road to the socialist utopia. But nobody in those circles wondered aloud whether a just world would be possible at all for an unrestricted growing number of people who started making higher demands to welfare. Fighting unemployment and a salary increase are still priority number one. The political party that would argue with that for ecological motives, would immediately be written off as being human-unfriendly.
A just distribution of profits and wealth is still regarded as the key to solving problems like poverty and famine in the world. However, it is constantly avoided to bring up the market economy, consumer society and overpopulation. Not one single political party is prepared to actually bring the problem of sustainability by economic growth up for discussion. The Dutch Christian Democratic party CDA for instance, does state that problems with space, nature and the environment can be solved by impoldering a small part of the North Sea. But this is just pushing forward the present ecological problems. You could say that the importance of those problems is ignored. In 1972, the Club of Rome expressed its concerns about the shortage of raw materials in the world in ‘The Limits to Growth’. Presently, people are still talking about those concerns, relaxed, satisfied and somewhat relieved, as the catastrophe that did not happen. Dictators in the previous century presented themselves as communist or fascist prophets of welfare. Masses could not be big enough for them. People were used to join military and labour forces. In a world that has even more starving and poor people today, totalitarian systems are an even more dangerous option, as are their religious opponents. They have never proven to be able to shape their welfare message worldwide. The offspring of all those wretches in Europe and America has developed in two centuries, just like its employers, into a demanding, unsatisfied and egocentric bunch of squanderers. China is following. Thanks to all those emancipations, all that education and all those social laws, the number of human plunderers of the world is constantly increasing. And the majority of all those consumers still thinks that the highest ideal is a salutary offspring and even more prosperity for everyone. And for that ideal, salaries and child allowances increase on a regular basis everywhere in Europe. And that has been going on for centuries. But the poverty and unemployment we are facing today, are only a derivative of an overpopulated world in which epidemics and wars do not disturb the natural balance anymore.
 
Treatment of the symptoms
The modern thought of progress has got us in its power. Anyone who suggests economic reduction, is given the cold shoulder. Like the cyclist who risks his own life by only braking slightly at a red light because he wants to keep up pace, we are only prepared to slow down our pace temporarily, economically speaking. Since the continuity of our welfare depends on cleaning up the pollution our welfare has left behind, that is the only concession we are willing to make. The Kyoto treaty will only help to stop the bleeding for a moment as well. Sustainability still plays a subordinate role compared to growth, which even has a higher priority than freedom of the individual.
It is fascinating to see how the subject of overpopulation is ignored by governments. In the Netherlands, all kinds of measures are taken or suggested that at least fight the symptoms of overpopulation. You can think about building high-rise flats, tunnels, underground railways and battery cages, high-rise flats for pigs, organizing staggered holidays, placing parking meters, laying rush-hour lanes. These are all measures responding to problems resulting from a population density that is too high. But according to the CDA party, there are not too many people… there is not enough land. So according to them, impoldering is the solution.
For the moment, plans for imperialistic or colonial raids, probably to other planets this time, have priority over a world-wide population policy.
 
There is no point in running away!
A world-wide spread of democracy is regarded as a political magic potion in the 21e century. In countries with a long parliamentary history, however, political parties much rather go into battle to win the favour of the voters. The pitfall for politicians here will always be the fact that they will have to compete with their political antagonists by making even finer promises about even more welfare that comes without a price tag. Spreading unpleasant messages about welfare reduction is political suicide. Since real ecological measures cannot rely on much sympathy from most voters, such measures fail to materialize. The free choice to have children is an inviolable right here in the West. To us, the Chinese one-child policy seems barbaric, because we are too individualistic for it. It is interesting, however, that people are prepared to sacrifice their freedom for terrorists that threaten their welfare, but that they are obviously not prepared to share that welfare in peace.
Democracy has become the plaything of interests. The debate in the representative body is no longer a debate, when the parliamentary majority by chance is a priory right because it holds a few more seats than its opponents. You could say that the driver who is driving faster, has right of way. Democracy is more and more a means to hold on to established rights. It is a form of common sense regarding the issues of the day and it does not have much to do with thinking about a sustainable society in the long term.
In order to survive, societies have found all kinds of solutions for their problems in the past. Those solutions can be found anew in structures and institutions that make their functioning possible. But eventually they will start living their own lives and degenerate into taboos. Mankind has then become a captive of its own creations and its own traditions. Economical growth once was the solution to fighting poverty. Child allowances were meant to give poor children the chance to get an education. The Delta Works were meant to keep the sea at a safe distance. But politicians refuse to acknowledge now that the most brilliant solutions then might not be really be right ones for the problems we face today.
Governing on autopilot like this is the result of haste, lack of interest, stupidity, fear or hunger for power. This way, bogus solutions are constantly presented as being real ones. Our political elites cannot justify this in a well-founded way. They cannot think of anything better than the efficient use of space, a city in the sea, staggering of holidays, heightening dikes, parking meters, road pricing and high-rise blocks. These measures only tempt us to postpone making fundamental choices. It is obvious that the strongest shoulders should bear the major part of the burden. But that is not a sustainable solution anymore, the way we are going at present. The only choice we have left now, is to stop avoiding making fundamental choices.
Annex with table
 
The connection between the footprint and the population density of the countries in the European Union
1.
Country
2. 
Present Foot-
print
3.
Sustain-
able Foot-
print
4.   
Present Popula-
tion Den-
sity
5.
Sustain-
able Popu-
lation Density
6.
Present
Popu-
lation
7.
Sustain-
able Popu-
lation
8.
Surface area
(x 1000 km²)
Belgium / Luxembourg
6.72
1.13
326
55
10.4
1.7
34
Denmark
6.58
3.24
125
62
5.4
2.7
43
Germany
4.71
1.74
231
85
82.5
30.5
357
Estonia
4.94
4.15
30
25
1.4
1.2
45
Finland
8.42
8.61
22
22
8.9
9.1
305
France
5.26
2.88
110
60
59.6
32.6
544
Greece
5.09
2.34
84
39
11.0
5.1
132
Hungary
3.08
1.75
109
62
10.1
5.7
93
Ireland
5.33
6.14
56
65
4.0
4.6
70
Italy
3.84
1.18
190
58
57.3
17.6
301
Latvia
3.43
3.02
36
32
2.3
2.0
64
Lithuania
3.07
3.02
53
52
3.5
3.4
65
Netherlands
4.81
0.79
478
79
16.2
2.7
34
Austria
4.73
2.78
96
56
8.1
4.8
84
Poland
3.70
1.63
122
54
38.2
16.8
312
Portugal
4.47
1.60
113
40
10.4
3.7
92
Slovenia
3.58
2.24
98
61
2.0
1.3
20
Slovakia
3.44
2.35
110
75
5.4
3.7
49
Spain
4.66
1.79
81
31
40.7
15.6
505
Czech Republic
4.82
2.32
129
62
10.2
4.9
79
United Kingdom
5.35
1.64
243
74
59.3
18.2
244
Sweden
6.73
7.34
22
24
8.9
9.7
411
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
European Union
 
 
117
51
455.8
197.6
3883
Source: Living Planet Report, WWF, Switzerland. 2002.
 
Notes to the table:

There was no information available for Malta and Cyprus.
 
The averages 117 and 51 at the bottom of the population density columns have been calculated on the basis of the total surface area of nearly 3.9 million square kilometres. This is called a weighted average.
 
Column 2, representing the present footprint, contains the number of hectares claimed by the actual consumption per capita of the country in question. It shows a clear connection between welfare and consumption. The table does not show that some countries have more alternatives to provide for their own consumption than other countries. After all, there are differences between the countries when compared on quantity and quality of agricultural land, woodland, fishing grounds, etc.
 
In column 3, representing the sustainable footprint, the number of hectares per person is summed up in a situation that the size of the population as it is today, can be maintained without using up the capital of the world, the sources of life, even further. In the case of countries like Finland, Ireland and Lithuania, the difference between the present footprint and the sustainable footprint is small. These are countries with small populations and big, surface areas, that are of good quality as well.
 
Column 4, representing the present population density (number of people per km2), shows information about the size of the population on 1 January 2003. The information is extracted from the Dutch publication Belangrijke feiten en cijfers over de Europese Unie. 2004 (Important fact and figures about the European Union. 2004).
 
Column 5, representing the sustainable population density (number of inhabitants per km2), shows information calculated on the basis of the data in the column representing the sustainable footprint.
 
Column 6, representing the present population size (in millions), shows information about the size of the population on 1 January 2003. The information is extracted from the Dutch publication Belangrijke feiten en cijfers over de Europese Unie. 2004 (Important fact and figures about the European Union. 2004)..
 
to column 7,
Column 7, representing the sustainable population size (in millions), shows information that partly came about on the basis of information from the columns representing the sustainable footprint and the sustainable population density.
 
Basis principles of the report “Living Planet Report’
The ‘Living Planet Report’ is a long-term project under supervision of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) International, which is an organization that has 5 million supporters and is active in 90 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degeneration of the natural environment and to build a sustainable symbiotic relationship between mankind and nature. Important goals in achieving this are to maintain ecological diversity, to preserve the renewable natural resources and to reduce pollution and wastage. The information in the report has come about through the cooperation with organizations like FAO, the IPCC, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the European Commission and the IVEM (the Centre for Energy and Environmental Sciences) in the Dutch city of Groningen. Mathis Wackernagel has helped to calculate the footprint and to write the scenarios and the political choices.
 
How is the footprint calculated?
The footprint of a country indicates how much surface area is needed to produce everything that the country in question uses in terms of food, raw materials, energy, etc. It is like the consumption of that country claims that part of the world. The footprint per country is the sum of different parts. Those parts are: agricultural land, grazing land, forest, fishing grounds, energy, built-up land. The sum of these ‘partial footprints’ determines the total ecological footprint.
 

 
In Civis Mundi 2008

World population