Friday, March 4, 2011

7 Billion Elephants in the Room

Have you seen this very educational clip from National Geographic? I love how it so clearly identifies what I've often heard referred to as the environmental elephant in the room. We all know that the population is an environmental concern, but it seems that many people don't want to talk about it. Why?

I think that many Americans view reproduction as one of our inalienable rights. Take one look at China's "One Child" policy and we can see that government limits on family size can lead to unintended consequences. But when I think about slowing population growth, I don't think about telling people that they can't have children. Instead, let's give people who don't want more children the education and the contraceptives required to prevent pregnancy. Let's work towards improving quality of life for people living in poverty, empowering women to make decisions about family planning, decreasing childhood mortality, and reducing the negative impacts on the environment.

There isn't a quick fix for the problems caused by overpopulation, but there are some actions that we can take in our everyday lives. Here are the three important ways:

  1. Reduce your consumption... of everything. About 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the resources and has the most impact on environmental degradation. With 7 billion people on the planet, we can't afford to be so selfish. Most of us in the developed world need to reduce our energy consumption and waste, as well as conserve and protect our water and land. Much of this can be done without reducing our quality of life. In fact, many people will say their quality of life improves in unexpected ways when they reduce their consumption.
  2. When you need to buy something, buy fair trade. This will ensure that the people involved in the production of the goods were paid a fair wage, which leads to improved quality of life for their families. The fair trade designation enables you to know that you're not supporting sweat shops or child labor.
  3. Support programs and organizations, politically and/or financially, that promote women's rights, education, and family planning in the developing world. Statistics show that women who are educated and have job skills will have fewer children in their lifetimes, and their children will have better quality of life. (Check out the charts at the Population Reference Bureau.) Women who do not want to have more children should be able to access family planning services.
But most importantly, let's talk about the population issues. As environmentalists, let's stop ignoring the environmental elephant in the room.


Frances said...

I loved that but I would also like to point out that it's not the population that is the problem. Like NG said, it's a lack of balance. Personally I would like to have as many children as I can, biologically and through adoption. I want to raise them up the Mennonite way, with strong environmental and social justice values. That being said, I know there are families that weep when they find they are pregnant, and wonder how they will survive. I wish there were more programs available for these families to prevent this situation. I know in my own life I have been very grateful for contraception, as we lived below the poverty line and could barely put a roof over our heads. I'm not sure we would have made it out of poverty with children in tow but I don't think children are the problem. Some people have no way out of poverty regardless.

AmazinAlison said...

Population IS a problem when people insist on using so many manufactured goods. And, as countries, such as India and China, continue to increase their consumption patterns there will be more competition for resources and less to go around. And, as other countries, outside of the US emerge as co-dominant world powers, folks in the US will have competition for goods that for a time we felt entitled to...

I think that folks DO need to think about population and resources and consumption patterns. I also love children and would not be opposed to a large family. Thank you for having the strength to introduce a discussion!

Farmer's Daughter said...

Frances- I think it's wonderful that you want to have a large family. I personally am opposed to dictating family size. However, I am concerned that so many children are born into poverty to women who do NOT want to have any more children, or are born to parents with HIV, or are born and die of starvation. People who don't want to have children should have the empowerment, education and contraceptives available to make that choice.

A larger population compounds all of the other environmental problems, and that's why I listed conservation as one of the best strategies for dealing with the environmental problems associated with population.

Anjanette said...

I enjoyed that clip and agree with your tips for conservation and environmental stewardship. I think that the term "overpopulation" is a misnomer though. I honestly think that term propagates a negative attitude toward people, and children in particular. As the video points out, there aren't too many people on the globe, just too many people abusing their resources, and too many others without access to them.

I know that the need for contraception often arises from lack of resources. I wish, though, that that weren't the case. If all 7 billion of us had adequate food and water, good health, and hope for the future I'd like to think that we would welcome children as the blessings they are. I definitely think that it is important for those of us who *do* have all we need to provide for those who don't so that they can experience the joy that adding to the population brings without it being such a weight.

Green Bean said...

It is hard sometimes to bring up issues like over-population. It can be touchy but definitely the elephant (or 7 billion elephants) in the room.

All fantastic tips you give for addressing it!

Melissa @ HerGreenLife said...

I suspect I'm opening a huge can of worms here, but . . .

If we fail to admit that the earth does have some kind of carrying capacity, and that we have a responsibility to consider that when having families, we ARE avoiding the elephant in the room.

Sure, it's uncomfortable, but even a very green and eco-conscious child born and raised in the U.S. will have a much larger eco-footprint than a child living in a less-developed country.

While most readers here are making efforts to live more simply and sustainably, most of us would not want to revert to the lifestyle that would be necessary to sustain the current (or larger) global population without further damaging this planet we depend on for survival.

In order to realistically achieve the goals we want (i.e., improved quality of life for people living in poverty), we must rein in population growth. Providing education and contraception for those who do not want to have children is part of the solution, but we also must be able to face the reality that having a "large family," regardless of whether you can provide a good quality of life, is part of the problem, NOT part of the solution.

Everydaywoman said...

Great clip from NG; thanks for sharing.

Also, your common sense ideas make sense. Whenever we talk about choice and overpopulation, it's bound to bring up controversy, but it's good to get the conversation started!

Miss A. said...

I would happily revert to a lifestyle from 150 years ago. I would love to have a simple and green, and efficient home, land I could grow our own food on and raise our own animals, make our own clothing, and depend on manufactured items a lot less. If at any point that becomes possible for me I will jump on it! That being said, I have one child and if I ever get married I fully intend to have more. If I don't get married I plan to foster and hopefully one day adopt. Either way I want to adopt at some point. Those children have already been born so there is no point in arguing if they will or won't have an affect, they are already here and need loving homes. What we can do is fight to get contraception to countries who deeply need it, so we can lower birth rates in places of extreme poverty. And hopefully by doing so we can prevent children being given up for the promise of rich American parents. Contraception needs to be available to those who do not want, or cannot raise, children. Those who do want children need to understand the impact it will have, and be fully educated on the best ways to reduce their carbon footprint. If raising a child in America is a problem, I will gladly take mine and raise them elsewhere, so I can have the brood of wonderful creations running underfoot without people complaining about it or looking down at me. :)

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Thank you for this post. This is very powerful:
About 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the resources and has the most impact on environmental degradation.

I knew this to be true, but those numbers put it very starkly. This makes me want to do better with using less, pushing for better public policy on the environment, and buying fair trade. Maybe I'll finally look into the fair trade chocolate issue. . .

I agree with Miss A. above -- I would happily use less resources if it weren't so much WORK to do so. It now takes genuine effort to dig yourself out of the norm of excessive resource consumption. I am working towards that, but wouldn't it be lovely if it were instead the norm?


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