It's the Environment, Stupid.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Scientific American special issue

I just picked up a copy of the latest special issue of Scientific American. The title: Energy's Future, Beyond Carbon.

I've only just started flipping through it on the subway this morning, but one of the first things that caught my eye was an essay by Jeffrey Sachs about global population control.

The concern over population today has a different tone to it than the debate in the early 1970's. While the concerns about demand on natural resources and strain on food supply still remain, there is an added realization that an increase in the number of people will increase standards of living, thus increasing overall (bad) consumption habits. Sachs sums up the problem well in his essay. "True, rapid population growth is not the main driver today of environmental threats. Pride of place goes to the high and rising rates of resource use per person, rather than to the rise in the sheer number of people. Even if the world's population were to stabilize at today's level of 6.5 billion people, the pressures of rising per capita resource use would continue to mount, as today's poor and middle-income societies increase their resource use to live like the rich countries, while today's rich countries continue their seemingly insatiable quest for still greater consumption levels."

"The continued rapid population growth in many poor countries will markedly exacerbate the environmental stresses. Under current demographic trends, the U.N. forecasts a rise in the world's population to around 9 billion as of 2050, another 2.5 billion people. They will arrive in the poor regions, but aspire to income and consumption levels of the rest of the world. Those 2.5 billion people eventually living at the income standards of today's rich would have an income level more than today's entire world GNP. If the economic aspirations of the newly added population are fulfilled, the environmental pressures would be mind-boggling. If those aspirations are not fulfilled, the political pressures will be similarly mind-boggling. All the better, therefore, to slow population growth while there is still the chance."

Sachs provides a four part strategy in how the U.S. can play a part in assisting lower income countries to reduce fertility rates: "First, promote child survival. When parents have the expectation that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer children, with a net effect of slower population growth. Second, promote girls' education and gender equality. Girls in school marry later, and empowered young women enter the labor force and choose to have fewer children. Third, promote the availability of contraception and family planning, especially for the poor who cannot afford such services on their own. Fourth, raise productivity on the farm. Income-earning mothers use their scarce time in productive employment rather than childrearing."

Sach's proposed strategy is working in different parts of the world, and is part of the global effort of eradicating poverty (which in turn creates an increased level of consumption). However, it will also be important for people to learn about resource management; how to build affordable housing with local materials in ways that fit with local cultures and social networks; for city and country governments to properly maintain physical infrastructures (water, energy etc.) and practice effective waste managment, even provide incentives and policy for good (green) business development and agricultural practices. The list can go on, but Sach's strategy is a good entry point and can be implemented now as one way at lessening the burden we're putting on the planet.

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