Thursday, 26 November 2009

Simple solution to a complicated problem?

Reading through the various reports on climate change and environmental damage it can sometimes seem as though the problems we face are insurmountable. That, despite the hard work of environmental campaigners and those concerned with fair trade and green issues, we are merely forestalling inevitable environmental collapse.

As the overdue realisation dawns on governments around the world, particularly those with most to lose because of dense populations perilously exposed to sea level rises, there is a clamour for ‘quick fix’ solutions. Everything from geo-engineering to devices in space designed to block out sunlight.

Whilst well-intentioned, these efforts overlook a far more fundamental problem. This problem can be expressed in a simple, single statement: There are too many people on the Earth, consuming too many resources.

In other words, our impact on the environment can be broadly expressed as follows:

Number of people x Per capita resource consumption

Stabilisation of the global population and a reduction in per capita resource consumption will, in combination, do more to mitigate environmental damage than anything else. The Pareto principle of directing most effort into that which produces the greatest result has never been more important, whilst political prevaricating and drawn-out discussions on relatively minor issues serve only as a distraction.

An effective solution must address both population growth and resource consumption together. There is little point in trying to reduce per capita resource consumption with a surging population as the total impact on the environment will continue to rise.

Politically, however, that is what is happening. Governments regard the subject of population stabilisation as almost taboo. A no-go area not up for debate. Almost immediately, there are accusations of totalitarianism and coercion in reducing family sizes.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be like that. Empowerment and better education of women in developing countries is known to have a downward impact on birth rates. The Obama administration’s progress in encouraging family planning in the US and more broadly within the UN will have a positive longer-term impact. There is so much that can be done and without recourse to totalitarian policies.

However, the size of the problem should not be underestimated. For example, China’s population is still growing now despite the policy of one child per couple having been in place for many years. There is an inherent time lag involved. On top of that there are likely to be greater food shortages and displacement of large populations as climate change impacts upon agriculture in low lying areas, coupled with desertification of areas where deforestation has taken place. This will inevitably compound the problems of migration.

Environmental organisations need to avoid focusing almost explicitly on reducing per capita resource consumption whilst neglecting the other side of the equation; population growth. Global environmental strategies can only be truly effective when addressing both sides of the coin.

Dr Gary Robertshaw
The Green Providers Directory

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