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Library of Alexandria: Response to Peter Kareiva: Are There Too Many People on the Planet?

December 15, 2012

Response to Peter Kareiva: Are There Too Many People on the Planet?


Peter Kareiva recently published a disjointed article on the topic of population size on http://www.conservationmagazine.org/. The article appears to be a poor attempt to dismantle a position he admits to holding himself. Dr. Kareiva projects his feelings of inconvenience being the cause of his believe that there are too many people onto everyone else that believes this is a legitimate concern. The first half of this article talks about how there is no evidence for there being too many people on the planet while the second half is a combination of Dr. Kareiva admitting that he himself believes there to be too many people and pointing out that the number of people is not the real question facing conservationists. The real question is actually one of quality of life.  Unfortunately Dr. Kareiva fails to discuss any specifics of the quality of life issue and completely ignores the fact that the quality of life issue is one that is impossible to separate from population size. I hope to elucidate this issue in greater detail here.



First, Dr. Kareiva takes the position that concerns based on the collective ecological footprint of the human species are easily dismissed because we could simply offset this disparity by converting 1/2 of the US landmass, or 3% of the earths landmass, to eucalyptus. This is an absurd position to take. For starters, it completely ignores the habitat requirements of eucalyptus (now I suppose a case could be made that a different plant could be used in different environments not suited to eucalyptus but lets just focus on what was explicitly said).  Eucalyptus plants, for the most part, need to be planted within USDA Plan Hardiness zones 8 or 9+ with a few exceptions possibly able to survive in zone 7. A quick look at a zone map will reveal why planting half of the US area with eucalyptus is a beyond silly proposal.


Such a proposal would require that eucalyptus be planted in, and thrive, throughout the entirety of its potential range and well into unlivable habitat. Further, surely the displacement of human populations and natural biodiversity would have zero impact on the health and sustainability of the plant (and by proxy the earths carrying capacity), right? This specific "solution" simply does not make any sense.

Further, lets, for the sake of argument, concede the best case scenario that the ecological footprint calculations are way off and that there are things we can do to further offset out collective footprint (other than planting eucalyptus).  Dr. Kareiva began his article by asking the reader to answer the question "Are there too many people on the planet?".  Moving forward under the assumption the reader said yes he asks a series of follow up questions:

We have 7 billion people on the planet. 
Were 5 billion people too many?
Were 3 billion people too many?
Were 1 billion people too many?
Were 1 million people too many? 
As the original article points out, the question is not really one of purely population size. What really matters is quality of life. This is really what it comes down to isn't it? People often make the case that we need to use less energy, less resources, less this and less that.  But in the end the maintenance of our general quality of life is depended on the use of these things.  The real question that needs to be asked before we ask what specific number of people is too many is the following: What is the minimum standard quality of life that we find acceptable for all human beings. Once we zero in on this then we can begin looking at what degree of resources are needed to maintain that quality of life in a sustainable fashion for X number of people.  Now replace X with the number of people currently on the planet and work backwards and you have a fairly clear answer regarding how many people was/is too many.

Some of you may be interested in trying to figure out, for yourselves, what the minimum standard of living you feel is acceptable for all of humanity. This tool from the United Nations Development Programme might be useful:


First, please keep in mind that, yes, this is correlational data.  There is no guarantee that as consumption as measured by ecological foot print goes up that a nations HDI score would increase as well, there are indeed some outliers. But absolutely there is a fairly obvious trend occurring  Personally, I think that, based on the above, a human development index of around .8, plus or minus a little, is probably going to correlate with a  reasonable minimum standard of living and that although we should be shooting to bring every country up to a 1 I recognize that this is somewhat unrealistic. It might be worth pointing out that .8 is the minimum point in the target range used in the Global Footprint Network's goals. A significant portion of the represented countries fall below our .8 goal. Further, among the countries needing improvement are places like India and China bringing their populations up in standard of living is almost certainly going to require vast quantities of resources and consumption.

Yes, consumption in many place, like the United States must go down, but conversely consumption in other places most almost necessarily go up, and the places that represent probable increases in consumption are vastly more populous. We have many hard choices to make in the near future as a country and as a global community.  Yes there is more to the issue than population size and population growth. But to play population size off as a non-issue, even if only for half of an article, is irresponsible in my opinion.

So are there too many people? Almost certainly if we want everyone to to have a reasonable quality of life. 

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