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Ali: People Power

06/08/10 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Spring is the season for birth and rebirth. But as UVM professor and commentator Saleem Ali observes, the earth's capacity is for renewal is being tested.

(ALI) There is one topic that has been notably absent from environmental conversations in recent years. Forty years ago, when events like Earth Day were first celebrated, the issue of population growth galvanized a generation. So, what happened in the intervening years to the high priests of population growth?

The answer is that many of them were overcome by guilt about consumption of wealthy countries, which made it embarassing to talk about population growth.

Others have become sanguine about population because the oracles at the United Nations have ordained that the world's population will stabilize around 9 billion by 2050 and because countries like Spain and Italy are actually seeing a decline in population.

Still others have started to use simplistic measures of environmental impact, such as carbon footprints as a measure of our projected well-being in years to come.

Indeed, if carbon footprints are your dominant measure, then western countries will no doubt wear a badge of shame.

But wait a minute. In terms of measures of human suffering, we cannot neglect the very local impacts of conflict and access to livlihoods.

This is where population growth remains an enormous challenge and must not be obfuscated with a focus on consumption.

Population growth remains an enormous challenge in countries like Pakistan -- my land of origin.

In such places, access to livelihoods will be the biggest concern in reducing conflict -- even if the per capita carbon footprint of the population remains small.

Furthermore, the largest population growth that is still persistent worldwide is in the highest consumption countries, as well -- namely the Gulf states of the Middle East.

To make matters worse, the largest family sizes for cultural reasons is among the most ideologically radical populations.

Note that fanatical elements in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the ones who want the most kids.

The moderates are thus being outnumbered by the procreative power of the fanatics.

Another unknown variable is how science and technology will raise human life expectancy.

Furthermore, even if population is controlled globally, the poorest among us certainly deserve a slightly better standard of living, even if they don't end up in mansions.

Gone are the days when scholars like Garrett Hardin were proposing "Life Boat Ethics" that advocated apathy toward the poor and the elderly or condoned a demise of populations to sustain "spaceship earth." For ethical reasons, we do not want to extend life where possible and environmentalism has been more universally humanized.

But this has also led to a conundrum of how best to address our fundamental resource constraints.

Educating communities through secular and religious means about population growth and consumption is part of the solution.

This will need to be coupled with regulatory incentives for smaller family size.

If people want more kids or end up living longer, technology will also be an essential ingredient in our strategy to deal with these challenges of balancing pluralism and planetary carrying capacity.

Consumption, technology -- and population -- are still the essential components of our ecological trinity.

(HOST TAG) To listen to more commentaries by Saleem Ali, you can visit vpr-dot-net.
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