Overpopulation: the unspoken secret of global warming
Climate change has become a subject of predilection for many journalists, but some aspects of it are very rarely covered by the media. It seems to many, that globalisation and long-distance trade go against all green logic. Yet, as few people are aware, buying tulips from Kenya is less harmful for the environment than buying the same flowers from Holland, for the very simple reason that heating a greenhouse for weeks in the Netherlands releases more carbon dioxide than a single flight from Nairobi to Europe. Similarly, Toyota’s Prius and other hybrid vehicles pollute more than most other vehicles on the long-term (when taking into account the impact of batteries’ manufacture and recycling).
The real issue with climate change, its number one cause, is very rarely debated. Global warming has been caused by, and will forever be exacerbated by, population growth. Geological evidence suggests that we should be currently living an ice age, had humans not started releasing huge quantities of methane by farming in the Fertile Crescent five to seven thousand years ago. Imagine the impact of agriculture given our present population!
The consequences of population growth go much further than farming. Having several children simply multiplies one’s carbon footprint. A higher world population adds pressure on resources, food and energy but also on land.
As Danish analysts have already realised, it is impossible to feed the whole country on bio production since it needs much larger surface areas and its output (because it is less intensive) is significantly lower.
As more people populate the earth, pressure on water also increases, and observers predict the emergence of wars for the control of water, similar to wars for oil. But some areas might suffer water shortages without conflict. California is thus facing a serious challenge as the water levels of the Colorado River are desperately diminishing, because of the irrigation of millions of acres without sufficient input from mountain snow.
If it is no secret that humans are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, what is much less publicised is that its consequences will affect humanity much more than nature. The predicted human toll linked to rising sea levels, natural disasters and droughts, is alarmingly high. Millions will suffer from famine, flooding, hurricanes, landslides, wildfires, heat waves and disease outbreaks.
Until rather recently, climate change has often been seen as some vague concept that does not really matter. It only seemed to affect glaciers, polar bears and some distant disappearing islands. This has been an unfortunate diversion.
Telling us that some animal species will disappear because of global warming has been counterproductive because people get use to the idea and soon forget about it, when they do not simply go and buy a fur coat. Similarly, rainforests are often heralded as the earth’s lungs. Yet some scientists consider that most of the planet’s oxygen is produced by plankton, in a process gravely endangered by the increasing acidity of oceans (because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).
The emphasis on deforestation as a major cause of global warming tends to shift the blame on illegal lumbering in developing countries (for our garden furniture), away from the seriously polluting (but profitable) activities of industrialised nations.
All this is interesting but what can you do to tackle global warming? Of course you should switch of the light when you leave a room, and turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, but it goes much further than that. Use your car in the most efficient way and favour public transports. Improve the insulation of your house when you leave uni (this is a very profitable investment too). Be a responsible consumer who does not buy strawberries in March and reduce your red meat consumption, given that raising cattle uses grain and therefore huge quantities of water and, on top of that, cows release methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times as harmful as CO2.
Our governments, on their part, should support congestion charge initiatives, invest into renewable energies research and integrate green concerns into development aid.
But these measures will have a very limited impact, no matter how motivated you are. The real decision that has to be taken is the implementation of large-scale birth control in countries with a rocketing population (many European nations have declining populations and the age pyramid is worryingly unfavourable: there is the need for higher birth-rates or immigration). Secondly, a profound reappraisal of our consumption culture is necessary. We can, and should, increase recycling, but this uses energy and fails to address the root of the problem.
We should question our culture of profit and constant economic growth, which unavoidably leads to intolerable levels of waste. We have to stop buying large quantities of poor quality cheap items. Instead we should buy fewer, more expensive, but also more durable items. To tackle the waste of resources and energy, we will have to blend economic and ecological concerns and unless we soon act decisively, humanity will slowly destroy itself and nature will then regenerate, as it has always done.