By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.








By Paul

Climate change is in the news once again. And well it should be. The Huffington Post has reported that May, 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, almost a degree and a half warmer than any previous reading for that month.

The good news, and there is a little, is that the Obama Administration has begun to take action. The President himself gave a speech over a year ago in which he laid out his own action plan. This was in part because efforts to get Congress to move in any positive way to make changes that would benefit the earth have come to naught. Many members of Congress, Republicans chief among them, deny either that the globe is warming at all, or that, if it is, the reasons for its warming have anything to do with human activity. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for example, is on record as saying that “man-made global warming is a hoax.” Broun is also the same individual who said: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” And Rep. Broun, it should be noted, currently serves on the House Science Committee!

Small wonder, then, that the Administration has taken matters into its own hands in making attempts to mitigate climate change. Just this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others from the White House are meeting with Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson, co-authors of a new report entitled “Risky Business,” which addresses the economic costs of climate change. Steyer is a billionaire activist and Paulson was Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. George W. Bush. Steyer has also pledged to spend 100 million dollars of his own money supporting politicians who take on issues related to the warming of the globe through his political action group NextGen Climate Action. Additionally, Secretary Lew, along with Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are holding talks with insurance company representatives regarding the anticipated impact and cost of atmospheric warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has also issued new guidelines related to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permitted from power plants, and the Supreme Court has recently determined most of these rules to be constitutional.

But while this may be the good news, unfortunately, plenty of bad news continues on unabated. I have recently been reading an interesting book called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman (also author of “The World Without Us,” which imagines the world, and its resurgence, after human beings become extinct). Weisman has a lot to say about where we are and where we are headed in regard to the effects of out-of-control population growth on climate change. What follows references just a small part of that report.

One essential question to investigate is: what is the optimum human population of the earth? This sounds simple enough, and to an extent it is, but it requires examining several other considerations before coming up with an actual number. The first of these prior questions has to do with the kind of lifestyle we are talking about for these earth inhabitants. And how, in fact, do we even measure something like lifestyle? One way that scientists have devised is by determining how many “terawatts” we use. A terawatt is a measure of how much energy is consumed by human beings (one terawatt equals one trillion watts). In 1993, a total of 13 terawatts of energy (13 trillion watts) were used by the earth’s 5 and a half billion people. In order to put this further into perspective, on average 7 and a half kilowatts of energy per person were used that same year by individuals in industrialized countries, and 1 kilowatt was used by each person in developing countries (all figures cited reflect standard forms of energy production, such as oil, natural gas, etc.). If these numbers are extrapolated and we assume continued current population growth, sometime this century (projected at the moment to be around 2082) there will be 14 billion people on the earth. Just for fun, go to www.census.gov. and take a look at something called the World Population Clock. You will note that right now we are at 7,174,896,000 people, and counting. It’s amazing, not to say daunting and even frightening, to see the numbers fly by on this clock, as you sit and watch.

But let us take a smaller number, say 10 billion people, and let us posit as an average 3 kilowatts per capita of energy usage. This still puts us at 30 terawatts (again, 30 trillion watts). At this level, and possibly even before, world systems begin to teeter. Indeed, some scientists predict a complete breakdown of the ecosystem. When will we reach that 10 billion number? No one knows precisely, as there are so many variables to calculate, but estimates put us somewhere between 9 and 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. How old will you, or your children, be in 36 years? This is a question each of us should be asking ourselves, and we ought to be wondering what kind of world we will be living in at that date. And remember, these figures are relatively conservative, in that they posit a decrease of energy usage by some 4 and a half kilowatts per person for those in industrialized countries. This number is, however, actually achievable, if we continue, as we have, to work on ecologically friendly alternatives to energy production.

But we still have not answered our initial question, namely, what is the optimum world population? Again, we must make certain assumptions, the most important of which relates to the kind of lifestyle we wish to live. The 3 kilowatt per person figure mentioned above is not a bad one for such purposes, in that it is probably achievable, and it evens out energy usage between the industrialized world and the developing world. And surely we must assume that billions of people in the developing world (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, just to name a few) are going to want, even to demand, more and more of what people in industrialized countries have for decades been enjoying.

For us to use 3 kilowatts of energy per person in order not to irreparably damage the ecological systems of the planet, that is, for us to expect a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, the optimum world population has to be about 2 billion people. This was approximately the number of people on earth in the year 1930.

In that year, the world used 2 terawatts of energy. But, we should bear in mind, it was also a world without all of the gadgets modern people have come to expect as part and parcel of a modern lifestyle: televisions, computers, cars and air travel for the masses, smart phones, tablets, central heating, air conditioning, and on and on. All of which are enormous energy consumers.  Calculating all this together, we reach an even smaller sustainable number of individuals on the earth. In other words, if we wish to continue using our cars and our computers and all of the rest listed above, the number of kilowatts needed gets raised to 4 and a half per person. And at 4 and a half kilowatts per person, the sustainable population of the earth drops to 1 and a half billion people!

How we are to bring the earth back to such numbers, particularly with the Rep. Paul Brouns of the world in charge, is another question. But clearly something has to be done. China started that process decades ago, and has made great progress with its one child per family policy, but is the rest of the world willing to put up with this kind of social engineering?   And religions abound which label it as sinful to “artificially limit” the size of one’s family.

Yet another question we have not explored is, if we presume that we will not reach this sustainable world population of 1 and a half billion people, or at least not any time soon, and if we continue on more or less as we are, what will human dominance of the planet look like in terms of space for other species? And here’s a self-centered question, if ever there was one, although it’s equally germane to human survival: if we have to say that some species on the planet “must go,” which ones go, and which ones do we allow to live, precisely because they are beneficial to human life? These are not just hypothetical questions at this point in history. They are real queries that will need to be answered, and answered before too long.

It is also true that the figures given by Alan Weisman are not necessarily the only numbers that scientists can spin. Even so, it does not take an advanced degree in demography to be able to see that more people means more demands on a limited number of resources. At some point, whether it’s in 2050 or 2082, or a bit sooner, or a bit later, some kind of tipping point will be reached. Maybe you will not be living at that time. I think I can say pretty surely that I will not be. But what of your children, and their children, and what of the other creatures on the planet, who have done nothing to contribute to the current mess we are in?

What can be said probably without much doubt is that, absent an almost inconceivably disastrous population reduction due to war or plague, a day of reckoning will finally come. And would it not be better to take steps now, while we still can, to stave off what none of us wants to see our offspring have to deal with?


By Paul

If you have a way of accessing the Los Angeles Times, whether in paper format (who does that anymore?), or on line, you might want to take the time to read the series they are currently running on out-of-control population growth.  It started on Sunday, July 22, 2012, and runs in several installments until Sunday, July 29.  What you will find there is extremely interesting, enlightening, and very frightening.

Right up front, statistics tell much of the story.  Although demographic predictions are not an exact science, there are some things we know for sure.  It is, of course, a fact that the world now has more than 7 billion people in it.  We passed that dubious landmark in 2011.  But what is even more startling is that by the year 2050, only some 38 years from now, the global population will rise to a minimum of 9.3 billion.  It may rise even higher, to as many as 11 billion people, depending on whether the average birthrate declines to 2.2 children per woman, or if it remains at its current 2.5.  According to the nonprofit Population Council in New York City, we are adding over 70 million people to the planet every year, and have been doing so since the early 1970’s.  And even if we were somehow, miraculously, to lower the average birth rate to 2.1 children per woman, the population would still continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate), given the inexorable mathematics of the sheer numbers of people we are talking about. 

Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, and it is all too easy for us to dismiss them as abstractions that do not affect our lives.  But if we put it into some kind of context, these numbers come more to life.  Right now, for example, 1 person in 8 lives in a slum, in other words, some 12% of the population of the world, which is bad enough to be sure, but possibly not that shocking to many of us.  By the year 2050, though, given current levels of poverty and patterns of migration to cities, that number rises to closer to 33%.   Now there’s a number that ought to command our attention.  By 2050, a third of the people in the world, 1 person in 3, will dwell in squalor, living at best in substandard housing if not actually on the streets, without anything near what most people in the west would consider normal sanitation, let alone adequate nutrition.  And beyond that, we can pretty much altogether forget about education for any of them.  Even today, the U.N. lists some 1 billion people as being chronically hungry.  What will we do, then, when there are 2 – or as many as 4 – billion more mouths to feed?

And this does not even take into consideration the fact that some countries of the world, such as China, are becoming more affluent, and in the process people are expecting to eat better.  No longer are wealthier Chinese content to eat only grains and vegetables; they want more and more meat, and even dairy products, just as people in the west do.  However, the roundabout process we have of raising crops in order to feed animals in order to feed people demands much more of the land, a great deal more water, and a lot more energy than merely growing crops for human consumption.  According to William Lesher, former chief economist of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “we are going to have to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000.”  And this at a time when the majority of our best farmland is already under cultivation.  In other words, we can’t just go out and find more land to farm.  Add to this the fact that climate change will also almost certainly begin to take away our ability to access some of the arable land we currently use, and we can see that the globe is headed for a train-wreck of a future, if we do not do something soon.  There are already too many people for the planet to support, and yet most of the world wants more and more children.  Again, let me remind you, these things will be taking place not at some time in “a far distant future,” when none of us will be around anyway, but within the next 30 to 40 years.  And if you are old enough now that you may not likely be alive to see it, remember at least that many of the people you love will be. 

So, the question suggests itself, is there anything we can do about it?  Well, of course, there is, but it won’t be easy.  The problem essentially boils down to this: fertility rates remain too high because of tradition and religion, lack of education, the inferior status of women, and of course either lack of access to, or taboos against, the use of contraception.  None of the items on this list is outside of humanity’s ability to fix it, but whether or not we have the will to do so is a very big question indeed.  

Another issue of serious concern is that fertility rates remain highest in some of the poorest parts of the world.  Take Nigeria, for example, where only 8% of reproductive-age women use contraceptives, compared to 72% in the United States. (And frankly, it amazes me that 28% of women in this country do NOT use contraceptives.)  But note this: the number of women who use contraceptives climbs rapidly when these women are afforded an opportunity to get an education.  What happens in the process of becoming educated is that women begin to take control over their lives, and specifically of their own reproductive lives.  In other words, to be perfectly frank about it, educated women are better able to resist the twin forces both of traditional societies, which demand large families (and especially large numbers of sons), and the dictates of religions, which it seems are so often are at odds with what is best for the world. 

Here is another related, and rather startling, statistic for your consideration:  of the (minimum) 2 billion people who will be added to the planet by the year 2050, 97% of them will be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  In other words, the vast majority of the growth in population in the world will be in those parts of the globe which can least sustain that growth.  This spells trouble for everyone, and if you think that it’s basically a problem only for the people who live on these continents, think again. 

As long ago as 1974, again according to the Los Angeles Times, even the likes of Henry Kissinger is reported to have said in a then-classified memo that “growing numbers of young people in the developing world (are) likely to be more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, alienation, and violence than older populations.”  He went on to add that “it is urgent that measures to reduce fertility be started.”  And the bi-partisan commission convened to study the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 concluded, speaking about extremism in the Islamic world, that “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable employment (is) a sure prescription for social turbulence.”  Such turbulence, as we have seen, has a marked tendency not to remain only within the borders of one country.

Yet, in spite of evident and growing problems associated with run-away population growth, the topic remains an extremely sensitive one for many people, and the twin forces alluded to above of tradition and religion continue to exert enormous influence in many societies. This includes the United States, let it be noted.   It is no secret, for example, that the U.S. government has over the years drastically changed its own policies in regard to educating people in less developed countries about contraception due almost entirely to ever-increasing pressure from the religious right.  Among many evangelicals, and some Catholics as well (although not all, in spite of what the bishops continue to preach), not only is abortion considered to be a sin, but so is the use of contraception.   

 Finally, the explosion of the population bomb is tied inexorably to the topic of global warming, which my friend and co-blogger, Kevin, wrote powerfully about in a recent posting.  One does not have to be a trained demographer to see that with smaller populations come fewer demands of all kinds on the ecosystem, and by contrast, the more people there are, the greater the strain on the system.  In this case, the “system” turns out to be our home, Earth, the planet itself.   

My fear is that the population bomb, and what will happen as a result of it, is similar to global warming in yet another important way, namely, that most of us are quite happy to ignore it.  I wonder if people think that both will somehow magically disappear, if we pay them no heed.  Unfortunately, such thinking is not only counterproductive, it has become downright dangerous.  At very least, what we can do is vote to elect progressive thinkers who might actually pay attention to the bigger picture, representatives who will stand up to the dictates of unthinking tradition and moralizing religion.  We can talk to our friends and our relatives, and urge them to find out about what is happening to our planet, the planet their children will inherit.  Those who are in the child-bearing years can make active choices to have one child, or at most, two children.  Or better still, why not adopt a child, who has otherwise come into this world unwanted and unloved?

One way or another, we need to take whatever action we can devise in our own lives, however large or small, to protect the planet against the ravages of the exploding population bomb.