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Mares: Population Milestone

10/28/11 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(Host) Halloween is just around the corner, but so is another event that commentator Bill Mares says will be a sobering milestone in world history.

(Mares) On Halloween, or thereabout, the world's population will pass seven billion. This is not a trick, and certainly not a treat.

But it is a good time to reflect on an ever-more crowded planet, growing by 220,000 daily, a number that equals one third of Vermont's total population.

Forty years ago, I made population control my principle environmental cause. After reading books like "The Limits to Growth, "Only One Earth, and the "Population bomb" and working on environmental problems in Africa, I became a disciple of Thomas Malthus who predicted that population would grow geometrically while food supply would only grow arithmetically.

It seems - then and now - that if you care about protecting what my prayer book calls "this fragile earth, our island home," you'd get the biggest bang for your charitable buck by helping to slow world population growth. Fewer human feet on the ground means less destruction of other species; less starvation, and pollution; less violent competition for resources, and now, less global climate change.

This is hardly the majority opinion, I realize. A recent cartoon by Tim Newcomb in the Seven Days newspaper captures this generalized state of denial. Two people are arguing. She says, "We've got to deal with the root cause of global warming!" He says, "Yeah, Let's talk about clean energy, sustainable agriculture, carbon footprints." "Actually," she says, "how about we talk sustainable human population?" "Oh, no," he says, "We can't talk about that! " Yet talk, we must.

Some still cling to literal religious injunctions like "go forth and multiply." OR, they think we can grow ourselves out of this challenge, that the rising tide of consumption lifts all boats above the challenge of poverty.

Forty years ago, when the United States consumed about 25% of the world's GDP, demographers like Paul Ehrlich used the term "Indian equivalents." That was the consumption of food, shelter, transportation, education, and so forth, of a single adult on the Indian subcontinent.

At that time, the average American consumed about 25 times the average of a citizen of India.  Today it's more like nine times. But that's not declining American consumption; it's increased Indian consumption. And don't forget the Chinese whose economy will surpass that of the US within a decade. This rising tide of consumption of finite resources threatens to sink all boats.

Another sobering yardstick of human impact is called the ecological Footprint - or the standardized measure of demand for natural capital in contrast with the planet's ecological capacity to regenerate. In 2006, humanity's total ecological footprint was estimated at 1.4 planet Earths - in other words, humanity was using ecological services 1.4 times as fast as the Earth could renew them. If the rest of the world catches up with U.S. consumption, we will need five planet Earths to keep the world humming.

There's an old saying that "When you're up to your hips in alligators, it's hard to remember that your biggest challenge is to drain the swamp." When it comes to reducing human consumption and advancing economic equality, population control is fundamental.
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