Flood of Humanity Held Back by Levees of Technology. But for How Long?

By FRANK CARINI

Lost in the discussion about climate change — at least the snippets of it not drowned out by the air horns of special interests — is the issue of overpopulation, arguably the main reason the planet is heating up, the oceans are acidifying and the atmosphere is wheezing.

Our sheer numbers are mostly a threat to, well, ourselves. The planet will recover; we won’t if we fail to take real action. Our most recent response — a full-on assault of women’s reproductive rights — doesn’t leave our children’s children much hope.

Sensing this blatant disregard for their future, a group of 21 kids, in 2015, filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government. It’s moving forward. In the lawsuit, the young plaintiffs have accused the federal government of violating their constitutional rights by knowing about the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and supporting the development of fossil-fuel production anyway.

The residents of Burrillville, R.I., can relate.

Meanwhile, many of the adults elected to lead us forward act like spoiled brats. In the face of overwhelming scientific proof — never mind common sense — that human activities are changing the climate and punishing the natural resources that sustain us and all other life, they dismiss the importance of family planning and reproductive heath to push ideology.

Tom Price, current secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, hates birth control. As a member of Congress, he voted to terminate the program that subsidizes contraception for low-income women. He voted against a law barring employers from firing women for using contraception. He rages against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirement that insurance plans cover contraception without a co-pay.

He told ThinkProgress in 2012 that there are no women who struggle to afford birth control and that the ACA’s contraceptive mandate is wrong. “Bring me one woman who has been left behind. Bring me one. There’s not one,” he is quoted. “The fact of the matter is, this is a trampling of religious freedom and religious liberty in this country.”

This widely shared heavenly worldview is helping trample the life out of this planet. It’s a big middle finger to the future.

Consider this staggering fact: human population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion during the course of the 20th century, according to the United Nations Population Fund. It took 199,900 years for the population to reach 1.6 billion, and then, in a blink of a century, 4.5 billion more people were added.

The worldwide population, now at 7.4 billion, is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. We need intelligent conversations — not intelligent design — about our population, to eschew escalating wars fought over natural resources and to avoid increased pain and suffering.

Human activity is causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, at rates of 1,000 to 10,000 faster than normal. (Center for Biological Diversity)  

Human activity is causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, at rates of 1,000 to 10,000 faster than normal. (Center for Biological Diversity)

 

Climate change, or if you prefer the label global warming, is really just about numbers — ours. It’s a simple math problem. But the issue of human population is never debated during presidential campaigns or discussed by cable TV’s talking heads.

Population, climate change and consumption are inextricably linked in their collective global environmental impact, according to the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program.

The Worldwatch Institute says the two overriding challenges facing mankind are to mitigate climate change and slow population growth.

“Success on these two fronts would make other challenges, such as reversing the deforestation of Earth, stabilizing water tables, and protecting plant and animal diversity, much more manageable,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “If we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.”

Addressing these two interconnected issues starts with improving the health of women and children, especially in developing nations. By reducing poverty and infant mortality, increasing female access to human rights, such as economic opportunity, education and health care — funding that the White House wants to cut because some of the organizations helping to improve the lives of poor women and girls also provide abortions — educating women about birth-control options and ensuring access to family planning services, women worldwide would have stronger voices.

Knowledge, after all, is power, but we seem determined to curtail education, as we relentlessly attack climate science and evolution, and spout rubbish about the Environmental Protection Agency generating “propaganda” and “brainwashing” children.

If he isn’t already, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.., should be named as a defendant in the kids’ climate lawsuit. The senator who recently spewed that brainwashing garbage received $465,950 from the oil and gas industry during the past five years to help fatten his campaign coffers.

Humans continue the geoengineering of the natural world to sustain our unsustainable numbers. The bough will eventually break.

More than two centuries ago, English scholar Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population. In his writing he noted that human population tends to grow geometrically, while the resources available to support it tend to grow arithmetically. Under these conditions, he wrote that human population will inevitably outgrow the supply of food. He predicted that population growth would lead to degradation of the land, and eventually massive famine, disease and war.

Improvements in agriculture and the Industrial Revolution postponed the disaster Malthus thought was imminent, although much of what he predicted as happened, just not in one fell swoop.

Now, 219 years later, can we again tech our way out of the numerous impacts our rapidly growing population has and will create?

If so, it will likely come at the cost of diversity, and a considerable price has already been extracted. It also will likely expand the already-too-wide gap that separates the wealthy from the poor.

Simply discussing the issue of population is taboo, and many of the conversations that are held inevitably veer toward population control and China’s since-lax one-child policy.

Ignoring the problem won’t solve it. We need to have grown-up discussions about reproductive health. We need to address public health and population at all levels of government. After all, humans are the main force behind environmental pollution.

In the United States, at least, these vital conversations are muted by politicians who clap their tiny hands and get all giddy about rolling back laws enacted to protect public health and the environment. God forbid if the words “penis” or “vagina” are mentioned in a classroom.

A voluntary family planning program in Iran helped drop the highest rate of population growth in the country’s history to replacement level a year faster than China’s compulsory one-child policy. The program subsidizes vasectomies, offers free condoms and affordable contraceptives, and supports countrywide education on sexual health and family planning.

Iran’s collection of spoiled brats, which, like here, consists mainly of older, whiny men, wants to defund the program.

It seems the “leaders” of these two countries have more in common than they know.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.