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A Non-Growing Population Is Necessary for True Sustainability

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Population Factor

By Robert Engelman, September 19, 2011

CREDIT: Christian Guthier (CC).

Scale and change are fundamental determinants of environmental sustainability, and demographic trends are fundamental to human scale and change. If we ignore these trends or insist that there is no ethical way to affect their speed and direction, true sustainability will be as hard to reach as the end of a rainbow.

Since the essence of sustainability is assuring that the activities of current generations do not threaten the well-being of future ones, the scale and the changes in magnitude of these activities are central. Consider rates of greenhouse gas emission and absorption; of freshwater withdrawals from the hydrological cycle; of water pollution, deforestation, and alteration of the habitat essential to the survival of non-human species. All of these activities have being occurring since humanity emerged, yet only in the past century has environmental unsustainability become a risk on anything more than local scales.

The reason human interactions with the natural world did not seriously threaten that world until recently is that the scale and growth of these activities were easily absorbed or deflected by the planet's great biological and physical systems and processes. Two main human forces have multiplied the scale of our interactions so that they are now beginning to overwhelm natural systems such as the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles, and hence threaten to make life more complicated, difficult and potentially miserable for ourselves and our descendents in future decades. The first force is the growth in our individual impacts on natural resources and the environment (often generalized as consumption). The second force is the growth of us—that is, human population. (Technology is often mentioned as a third factor, but its influence can work in either direction, boosting or depressing individual or population-scale impacts. And in any event, the influence of technology on the environment is expressed only through the other two forces: individual behavior and demographic dynamics.)

Arguably, population is the greater force than per capita consumption in these interactions. There are roughly a thousand times more people on the planet today than at the dawn of agriculture. But even with all our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources, it seems unlikely that the average human being today has a thousand times the environmental impact of individual hunters and gatherers, who depended on large animals and wild plants for their food supply. In any event, it is obvious that no amount of reduction in individual consumption can produce enduring sustainability if population does not stop growing. If we ever succeed in eliminating the gross disparities that today characterize per-capita consumption levels, our success will make even more obvious the eventual necessity of a non-growing population for true sustainability.

The main obstacle to recognizing and discussing the importance of ending population growth to environmental sustainability is concern about ethical implications. How can population growth be influenced favorably in ways consistent with most people's values? Fortunately the answer affords real hope for achieving sustainability: through allowing women the autonomy and the means to achieve their own reproductive intentions without external interference.

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