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Limits to Growth

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We cannot let humanity happen

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Saturday, 27 August 2011 16:31

Towards less Europeans

Paul Gerbrands

1.         It is still tradition in the European Union that countries with the most mouths will receive the most votes and therefore the most seats in the European Parliament. Power is proportional to the country’s number of inhabitants.

Similarly, in practically all European municipalities the salary of the major is related to the number of inhabitants: the more residents, the higher the salary. Large countries with fewer inhabitants have the misfortune of having little impact on European policy. Small countries with a minor number of inhabitants do not have any impact at all. Finland is a vast, sparsely populated country with hardly any raw materials. In Europe, its value is only political and strategic. Large, densely populated countries such as Italy, Germany, the UK and France all have a loud and clear European voice. In order to gain influence, a country is forced to increase its number of inhabitants.

The European Union is a democratic organisation. However, most international organisations of states are not democratic. They do not so much represent the opinion of a world electorate as the opinion of the majority of the governments of influential member states. Many of these governments are in no way democracies, but suppressing regimes spending their income on jet set consumption for the rich, glamour projects and ultra modern armament. A shrinking population can become a political problem for reasons of power. Ahmedinedjad has called birth control a ‘profane western import’ and announced high bonuses for newborn babies. In Russia a shrinking population is considered a demographic catastrophe which in the long run can become fatal to its power position (Couwenhoven). It is expected that the Russian population will shrink from 140 million people in 2010 to 116 million people in 2050, mainly due to high male mortality.

2.         One could think of an alternative way of power distribution, which is not based on the number of inhabitants of a country, but on its economy with energy, reduction of pollution and avoidance of exploiting other countries for its own wealth. Such a country would take into account that the earth cannot cope endlessly with the exploding fancies of a growing population. Many centuries of ‘cheap buying’ and an expansionist colonial policy have prevented Europe from bankruptcy and have established a worldwide economic advantage.
The admission of new member states to the European Union and the call for even more members are in fact attempts to enlarge the European hinterland, thus creating new economic possibilities. In a simple manner expensive raw materials will come within the range of the EU. New member states will become part of a democratic organisation and achieve more prosperity in return. Sceptics in the EU have proposed to admit Iraq as soon as possible. This would solve Europe’s energy problems for the coming century, notwithstanding a few additional difficulties.

3.         The maxim of economic growth forces the European Union to cross its borders in order to find a solution for its economic problems. The danger of a stalling economy is still imminent, due to overconsumption spurred by commercial advertising, ecological excess, lack of energy and shortage of other supplies. However, an ordinary citizen will not be very aware of it. The ease with which Europe belittles these problems by a continuous expansion and upscaling is absolutely irresponsible. A different strategy would be most welcome, instead of mere fostering the standard growth model. Industrialised countries are heavily overpopulated and overexploit their own soil. Therefore they will have to cross their borders in order to satisfy their consumption patterns and act as if there are no limits to an inexhaustible earth. Europe’s only concession is the cancelling of some developing countries’ debts. It may sound generous and human, but it does not testify a long term economic understanding.

4.         The economies of some ‘poor’ countries, such as China, India and Pakistan, are emerging exponentially. Their need for more and nutrient food, more and clean drinking water and more and sustainable energy will not only raise their claims on the world’s supplies, but also force them to keep all domestic supplies for their own. This will have impact on their economic development. However, in the long run overproduction, overconsumption en ‘people production’ over there will also be at stake. Before a substantial reduction of inhabitants will take place in the Third World, overconsumption will have had the same devastating consequences as in the rest of the industrial countries. First, the amount of industrial waste (including billions of tons of carbon dioxide) will rise exponentially, as in Europe, before people will understand. Future wars for food, violations of human rights and other degrading living conditions will go hand in hand with an increasing desire of many Third World inhabitants to escape their bad living situation.

If we stop these people at the borders of our ‘Fortress Europe’, they will distrust our intentions even more. This will remain the same, as long as Europe does not understand that her excessive economic needs are one of the main causes of a stalling world economy. Closing the borders in order to avoid domestic shortages is not very helpful. We may close our doors as soon as Europe is willing to see that her prosperity should not be built to the detriment of other countries. Economic shrink might become inevitable. At any rate, waste export and too easy import of valuable goods such as raw materials and food hardly needed elsewhere should be prevented. This implies being economical with input goods, redressing overconsumption and diminishing the number of people.

We should do away with premiums on reproduction such as child allowance, free child care as well as IUI and IVF reimbursement. No one should be allowed to benefit from products causing human suffering or environmental damage (child labour, cotton and soya industry, food imports from remote countries, export of livestock products, unnecessary mobility) or to buy from institutions which are responsible for them. One could start with taxation of e.g. registration certificates for second cars, aircraft fuel, engine power of luxury vessels, meat and diary products, grey electricity and gas, and even turn to rationing or prohibition in the long run (e.g. the ordinary light bulb). One could also think of licence auctioning and allotment (e.g. registration certificates in Beijing, fish and livestock quota).

5.         Things will not be easy; people tend to postpone their interventions until they are personally affected and proper measures will come too late. The fight against international terrorism started not until almost everybody in the civilised world got frightened and became aware of the fact that things would go totally wrong if no appropriate measures would be taken. However, there is no real fear of pauperism and hunger in present day Europe. Only when our status is threatened by a stinking and overpopulated society with cancer and airway infections as common diseases, overconsumption and overproduction will be put on the political agenda. We seem to have a blind faith in future technology in our assumption that it will solve all these impending problems, poverty, hunger and thirst included.

To date, we bury our heads in the sand. Europeans keep talking of sustainability, but who does not want his windows made of tropical hardwood, which does not need so much maintenance? Only those who opt for plastic, which does not need any environmentally harmful maintenance at all. However, plastics are made at the expense of irreplaceable raw materials and their manufacturing causes heavy pollution. Sustainability in Europe amounts to a permanent quest for alternative solutions in order to satisfy our excessive needs.

6.         According to the United Nations environmental organisation UNEP as soon as 2002 a three kilometre thick smog layer covered parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and their neighbour countries heavily damaging agriculture. Meanwhile the layer has grown in volume. It is caused by a dramatically increase in the use of fossil fuels by traffic and industry in the so called developing countries. This pollution is aggravated by the smoke of millions of private stoves burning wood, cattle dung and other biomaterials. The smog layer cuts illumination by about 10 percent. It will spread out slowly over the rest of the world. In the next decades the number of inhabitants of Asia will increase to 4 or 5 millions. It is expected that their prosperity and following use of fossil fuels will grow exponentially.

7.         Similar problems arise in our part of the World. To date, European cities and regions such as Paris, Lyon, London, Liverpool, Antwerp, Wallonia, Rotterdam, the central Dutch urban area, the Ruhr district, Rome, Naples, the Po valley and many other European industry centres doom their inhabitants to live in very unhealthy conditions. It is expected that our prosperity will keep on growing, in the same way as our overconsumption and pollution will do. The Kyoto Protocol has the strong intention to keep prosperity upright; it basically neglects important factors such as overconsumption and overpopulation in its aim to reduce the enormous pollution and damage done to the world. Kyoto may be a small step forward, however in essence it promotes technical solutions in order to maintain our lavish way of life. The very thought of possible shortages stirs up our investments, instead of making us aware of the real problem. In the long run this attitude could be fatal to mankind. A slight reduction of production and consumption as proposed in the Kyoto Protocol will turn out to be futile.

8.         It would be very unrealistic to plea to lower our standard of living, given the vigour and tenacity with which the trade unions tend to cling to their wage demands. The only alternative is a substantial reduction of the number of people responsible for the huge overconsumption and environmental pollution. The issue of overpopulation is not always taken seriously; people often think one is exaggerating. Pleas for birth reduction are considered misanthropic. People suggest that self regulation will do the job, and a small beginning seems to have been made. The mean number of children per woman is going down in Europe and Japan as well as in other countries. As a consequence, the global mean fertility rate has decreased slowly from 3 children in 1998 to 2,5 children in 2002. However, with this fertility rate the world population will grow from 6 milliard people to more than 9,2 milliards in 2050. This increase will not be restricted to the Third World, but part of it will also affect Europe by migration. If this new accretion wherever in the world will become full member of our circle of overconsumption and pollution, survival wars will break out and mankind will be thrown back into the dark ages.

9.         A fertility rate of 2,1 children per woman is generally regarded as the replacement level. With fewer children the population of a country will shrink. However, this hypothesis is wrong. The final population size also depends on mortality and life expectancy. As a consequence of the inertia effect of previous generations with replacement rates above 2,1, population size will not diminish until the fertility rate of all cohorts will have descended below 2.1, not to mention the disturbing effects of migration. Even with a global fertility rate of 2,0, we would have to face 8,9 milliard people in 2050, according to the United Nations. This would imply a population growth of nearly 3 milliards compared to 2002. Next table shows the both surprising and shocking predictions of population growth, even in countries where the present fertility rate has reached a historical low.

country

fertility rate

Expected population growth until 2025

 China

1,8

307,2 millions

 South Korea

1,6

5,8 millions

 Taiwan

1,4

3,4 millions

 Japan

1,4

5,8 millions

 Germany

1,3

5,7 millions

 Russia

1,2

8,4 millions

Wackernagel’s publications on human demands and earthly offers make clear that the sum total of food and energy offered is by far not enough to satisfy all human needs. Nearly every country’s ecological footprint surpasses its national resources. Especially industrial countries face a chronic ecological deficit. Each of them should remediate this by reducing the consumption of its inhabitants. However, in industrial states this will not be easy, for prosperity and wealth are just taken for granted. With ten million people going for high standards of living, we would need two planets earth in 2050 in order to meet all our demands.

10.       Giving up affluence will not be acceptable for developing countries either, because growing prosperity is their only possibility to escape from poverty. Also there reduction of the number of consumers is the only viable strategy.

11.       The amount of land necessary to meet a man’s consumptive needs in a biological and sustainable way is determined by his lifestyle. His needs are categorisable as food, housing, transport, consumer goods and services e.g. education and health care. To meet these needs, ecologically productive land is required. It must be able to renew all consumed resources and to mitigate associated waste in a sustainable way. For each community this amount of land can be determined and defined as its ‘ecological footprint’. But how much ecologically productive land and sea area are available?
Our planet comprises 14,5 milliard hectares of land and 36 milliard hectares of sea. After deduction of the polar icecaps, deserts, semi-arid regions and set-aside or infertile land there remain less than 11 milliard hectares for human use. Divided by the present number of 6 milliard people on earth, the outcome amounts to 1,5 hectares per world citizen. The Brundtland Report of 1992 proposed to reserve around 10 percent of the ecologically productive surface for animal life. This would leave 9 milliard hectares to man. Personal needs or society needs vary considerably, although the individual need for living space will grow as the personal income increases. And this is definitely the case, practically everywhere in the world.

12.       Overexploitation of the earth is synonymous with exhaustion. The land becomes less productive; man cannot live from the earth’s natural interest anymore and is bound to consume the capital itself. This is Europe’s reality. The European Union is using an amount of land which exceeds its surface many times.

13.       Following table shows the present number of inhabitants for most EU countries as well as their desired number, based on their present standard of living. Nowadays each inhabitant of e.g. Germany needs 5,1 hectares of ecological land, whereas the country can only provide 1,9 hectares per person. By reducing German population pressure from 231 people per km2 to 86, Germany would no longer over demand the earth.

14.       Europe’s population is evidently far too numerous to sustain its present standard of living. There are several solutions to this problem.

  1. Population reduction
  2. Consumption reduction
  3. Mitigating the effects of overconsumption by enhancing efficiency and re-use

The table is based on the premiss that inhabitants of our planet as a whole use the resources the planet offers. The footprint of a country is the total surface necessary to produce renewable life sustaining resources for this country. People use resources from all over the world; therefore the footprint has been calculated on the basis of all available resources. There are huge differences between countries in production capacity and consumption. The term ‘hectare’ represents the weighted mean of the productive surface of all global productive land, including fishing lands. The table is meant to be a mere indication. It should give rise to discussions on the problem of overpopulation in connection with consumption levels.

Table: the relation between footprint and population density in countries of the European Union based on data from 2007.


Country

Present

Foot-

print

Sustain-

able

Footprint

Present

Population

Density

Sustain-

able

Population

Density

Present

Population

Sustain-

able

Population

Surface

(x 1000 km²)

Belgium/Luxemburg

8

1,3

309

50

10,5

1,7

34

Denmark

8,3

4,9

126

74

5,4

3,2

43

Germany

5,1

1,9

231

86

82,3

30,7

357

Estonia

7,9

9,0

29

33

1,3

1,5

45

Finland

6,2

12,5

17

35

5,3

10,7

305

France

5

3,0

113

68

61,7

37,0

544

Greece

5,4

1,6

84

25

11,1

3,3

132

Hungary

3

2,2

108

79

10,0

7,3

93

Ireland

6,3

3,5

63

35

4,4

2,4

70

Italy

5

1,1

197

43

59,3

13,0

301

Latvia

5,6

7,0

36

45

2,3

2,9

64

Lithuania

4,7

4,4

52

49

3,4

3,2

65

Netherlands

6,2

1,0

485

78

16,5

2,7

34

Austria

5,3

3,3

99

62

8,3

5,2

84

Poland

4,3

2,1

122

60

38,1

18,6

312

Portugal

4,5

1,3

115

33

10,6

3,1

92

Slovenia

5,3

2,6

100

49

2,0

1,0

20

Slovakia

4,1

2,7

110

73

5,4

3,6

49

Spain

5,4

1,6

87

26

44,1

13,1

505

Tsjech Republic

5,7

2,7

130

62

10,3

4,9

79

United Kingdom

4,9

1,3

250

66

61,1

16,2

244

Sweden

5,9

9,7

22

37

9,2

15,1

411

 

 

 

 

 

 

EUROPEAN UNION

 

 

119

52

462,6

200,2

3883,0

Source: Living Planet Report, WWF, Switzerland. 2010, data from 2007.

 

Column 2, present footprint
The number of hectares required for the average consumption of each inhabitant.

 

Column 3, sustainable footprint
The number of hectares available for the average consumption of each inhabitant.

 

Column 5, sustainable population density (in millions)
Figures calculated on the basis of column 3.

 

Column 7, sustainable population
Figures calculated on the basis of the Living Planet Report.

 

Principles of the Living Planet Report
The Living Planet Report refers to a long term project conducted by the World Wildlife Fund International. This organisation has five million donors in 90 countries. Its mission is to stop the destruction of the natural environment and to foster a sustainable coexistence of man and nature. In order to achieve this, following intermediate goals are set: conservation of ecological diversity, preservation of renewable natural resources and restriction of pollution and waste. Data in the Report have been collected in cooperation with organisations such as FAO, IPCC, International Energy Agency (IEA), the European Commission and IVEM in Groningen, Netherlands. Mathis Wackernagel contributed to the footprint calculations as well as to the scenario texts and political options.

 

How the footprint is calculated
The footprint of a country refers to the amount of land necessary to satisfy the needs of that country concerning food, raw materials, energy and so on. It is practically the part of the world required by the consumption of that country. Its footprint is the sum total of several factors: agricultural land, pasture, forest, fishing land, energy, housing area. The sum total of these partial footprints results in the complete ecological footprint. Relevant data have been collected since 1961; they are updated every year.

World population