Review of Scientific American Article
This article in Scientific American is comprehensive and deals with the subject really well. I think anyone who is savvy on the subject would agree with their thesis that:
"Slowing the rise in human numbers is essential for the planet--but it doesn't require population control"
It is worth reading though I have a few critiques on some of the points.
Critique of Forcing Narrative
The authors are a little too general and mechanistic in their arguments. It not only matters how much total is consumed but where and how. The authors note:
"Nature, of course, couldn’t care less how many of us there are. What matters to the environment are the sums of human pulls and pushes, the extractions of resources and the injections of wastes. When these exceed key tipping points, nature and its systems can change quickly and dramatically."
But this is not really accurate. What matters isn't just the sum, but where and how. The overall climate is a function of millions of microclimates each covering 100s of square miles of land. Droughts and storms are a function of the interaction of these micro-climates. In some cases the effects of human behavior are a multiple of the "pulls and pushes" in a choke point or critical location. Systems change quickly and dynamically due to these chaotic interactions. They do not add. Some of them multiply. [See Mandelbrot]
Not recognizing the importance of local climate detracts somewhat from the force of their narrative. The reason that climate deniers have gotten any leverage at all is a consequence of the arguments getting reduced to generalities. The carbon cycle is a source of greenhouse gases, but it turns out methane is even a more powerful forcer of warming than C02. And if we want to sequester C02 we start by improving our agriculture, moving people to more efficient environments (cities versus sterile suburbs, garden suburbs versus sterile suburbs, less dependence on internal combustion, etc...) and protecting microclimates in key areas (Amazon, Nigeria for example). If we are dealing with methane releases is it better to let the methane enter the atmosphere or burn it? If one over generalizes one won't be able to make a good choice.
Reducing consumption is a function of efficiency and analyzing the why of consumption. India uses less energy right now because they haven't gone to mass air conditioning. That can rapidly change as folks try to cope with local climate change. New England uses more energy because of its winters. That's been moderated some with more efficient insulation.
Impact of Climate Change is Specific, not General
Moreover drought is a function of rainfall, but it is also a function of human decisions to deal with rainfall. To a person facing drought heat isn't the primary issue, lack of water is. I worked with Hydrologist scientists and while working with them I learned that their models take into account things like how fast water drains. Microclimate matters. Beavers moving up river valleys into deserts, transform those valleys from deserts to green valleys. Humans can be beavers or locusts.
Humans can influence the effects of droughts with Qanats and water storage, soil conservation, and better agricultural practices. Plant and water Trees and the micro-climate changes. Change the micro-climate and the general climate is affected. And near shores with protecting natural barrier islands, plantings of mangroves in the tropics and other efforts to manage nature and remedy the damage caused by human exploitation and unintended damage. The authors talk about civilization waste. But that is also an issue of efficient resource use. The only waste that can't be reused is that created by entropy. We need to radiate excess heat to outer space. Intense recycling. Use of recycle-able materials. etc... all play a role in solving our problems. We've already seen that "Hammer" policies are:
Counter Productive Policies
The authors note the counter-productive nature of many policies that focus on population levels:
"Those who do consider population to be a key to the problem typically say little about which policies would spare the planet many more billions of people. Should we restructure tax rates to favor small families? Propagandize the benefits of small families for the planet? Reward family-planning workers for clients they have sterilized? Each of those steps alone or in combination might help bend birthrates downward for a time, but none has proved to affect demographic trends over the long term or, critically, to gain and keep public support. When the government of India rewarded health workers for meeting sterilization quotas in 1976, the zeal of some of them for wielding scalpels regardless of their patients’ wishes contributed to the downfall of Indira Gandhi’s government in 1977."
The authors point to a more productive approach to population control:
"Mostly ignored in the environmental debates about population and consumption is that nearly all the world’s nations agreed to an altogether different approach to the problem of growth 15 years ago, one that bases positive demographic outcomes on decisions individuals make in their own self-interest. (If only something comparable could be imagined to shrink consumption.) The strategy that 179 nations signed onto at a U.N. conference in Cairo in 1994 was: forget population control and instead help every woman bear a child in good health when she wants one."
- Three things are needed:
- 1. Better education in health, birth control and economic options.
- 2. Better education and access to secure economic life for all.
- 3. Empowering women.
Do those three things and nothing draconian is needed. Objectify the poor and under educated and continue our hierarchical and abusive elitism and things spiral out of control We either control ourselves into a soft landing or we WILL crash.
Empower Women and We Empower the Future
The authors deserve a roaring cheer for this:
"That approach, which powerfully supports reproductive liberty, might sound counterintuitive for shrinking population growth, like handing a teenager the keys to the family car without so much as a lecture. But the evidence suggests that what women want—and have always wanted—is not so much to have more children as to have more for a smaller number of children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood. Women left to their own devices, contraceptive or otherwise, would collectively “control” population while acting on their own intentions."
The authors note:
"In every nation, rich and poor, in which a choice of contraceptives is available and is backed up by reasonably accessible safe abortion for when contraception fails, women have two or fewer children. Furthermore, educating girls reduces birthrates. Worldwide, according to a calculation provided for this article by demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, women with no schooling have an average of 4.5 children, whereas those with a few years of primary school have just three. Women who complete one or two years of secondary school have an average of 1.9 children apiece—a figure that over time leads to a decreasing population. With one or two years of college, the average childbearing rate falls even further, to 1.7. And when women enter the workforce, start businesses, inherit assets and otherwise interact with men on an equal footing, their desire for more than a couple of children fades even more dramatically."
We Humans can be keystone species like Beavers that benefit our local environment. Or we can be like Locusts and turn previously green places back to desert.