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All consuming: the real problem is what we do

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Is the problem too many people or too much consumption? David Beillo, associate editor at Scientific American, explores.

This article originally appeared on Ensia.

Two German shepherds kept as pets in Europe or the US use more resources in a year than the average person living in Bangladesh. The world’s richest 500 million people produce half of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion emit just 7%. Industrial tree cutting is now responsible for the majority of the 13 million hectares of forest lost to fire or the blade each year — surpassing the smaller-scale footprints of subsistence farmers who leave behind long, narrow swaths of cleared land, so-called fish bones.

In fact, urban population growth and agricultural exports drive deforestation more than overall population growth, according to research from geographer Ruth DeFries of Columbia University and her colleagues. In other words, the increasing urbanisation of the developing world — as well as an ongoing increase in consumption in the developed world for products that have an impact on forests, whether furniture, shoe leather or chicken fed on soy meal — is driving deforestation, rather than containing it as populations leave rural areas to concentrate in booming megalopolises.

So are the world’s environmental ills really a result of the burgeoning number of humans on the planet — growing by more than 150 people a minute and predicted by the United Nations to reach at least 9 billion people by 2050? Or are they more due to the fact that, while human population doubled in the past 50 years, we increased our use of resources fourfold?

Peak humanity

First and foremost, human population growth peaked long ago, according to demographer Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University in New York and others. The peak growth rate — a little more than 2% per year — occurred somewhere between 1965 and 1970, when the world’s population was just 3.3 billion people, and has been dropping ever since, reaching a little over 1% today. In 1987, the number of people added to the planet each year topped out at 87 million, a number that is now down to roughly 78 million people per year. That means human population numbers will drop voluntarily for the first time ever in human history in the 21st century. A baby bust has replaced the baby boom.

The reason? Empowerment of women. A massive reduction in child mortality, combined with educated mothers pursuing their own advancement and in control of birth control, has helped to drop the average human brood from over five children per woman of childbearing age to just 2.6 per woman today. As journalist Fred Pearce writes in his new book, The Coming Population Crash, “The population bomb is being defused. By women. Because they want to.”

In fact, the combination of increasing health (especially a greater proportion of babies surviving to adulthood), empowered women and falling birth rates may be the most important revolution to come out of the tumultuous 20th century. Those of us born between 1930 and 2050 will be among the privileged few to have ever witnessed a doubling of global population. It took from the dawn of humanity to the 19th century to achieve 1 billion people on the planet — an achievement that now comes roughly every few decades. And the 21st century will likely belong to the old, as elders outnumber youth for the first (recorded) time in human history: Fewer than 10% of people alive today are under four years old, while those 60 and older now constitute more than 10% of the population. Birth rates in countries such as Germany have fallen so far that populations are already shrinking.

Population growth rate (2011) : Births, deaths, immigration and emigration — all influenced by health, nutrition, education, prosperity and more — create different patterns of population change in different places. Source: World Bank

Yet this demographic transition does not hold everywhere. While family planning has proven effective in the past in countries ranging from Thailand to Iran, funding for such programs has dwindled in recent years. Partially as a result, developing countries in eastern Africa — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe — have seen populations begin to swell again in recent years.

Capacity unknown

The real question is, how many people can the planet sustain? As Cohen notes in his book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, microbiologist Anton van Leeuwenhoek calculated a carrying capacity of roughly 13.4 billion people back in 1679, based on the population density of his native Holland and its size relative to the rest of the globe. Modern guesses are hardly more scientific, ranging from as few as 1 billion (recently proposed by James Lovelock as our likely number by 2100 thanks to catastrophic climate change) to as many as 1 trillion.

These estimates are political numbers, intended to persuade people, one way or another: either that too many humans are already on Earth or that there is no problem with continuing rapid population growth”, Cohen writes.

As early as 1948, scientists began to link explosive modern population growth and catastrophe. Ornithologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival warned of impending demographic doom — as have numerous conservationists and environmentalists in the subsequent decades, perhaps most famously biologist Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) or Donella and Dennis Meadows (The Limits to Growth). In Ehrlich’s case, observations of butterflies breeding so fast as to consume all available food — and then dwindling away — inspired him to predict the same fate for humans.

This is not a new idea, mind you. As early as 1600 BC, when total population was less than 50 million, Babylonians worried that the world was too full of people, according to Cohen. The predicted human population of 2050 — 9 billion people — would have been inconceivable at that time.

Outpacing pessimism

That’s because human ingenuity — whether through the waterworks of ancient Babylon or the more modern breeding of staple crops such as wheat for higher yields, known as the Green Revolution — has outpaced, so far, the pessimism of apocalyptic environmentalists.

Agronomist Norman Borlaug and colleagues created a strain of dwarf wheat that staved off famine for hundreds of millions in the 1960s and 1970s — increasing India’s harvest alone by nearly 170% in less than a decade. Yet “there can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort”, Borlaug said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize in 1970. “[Man] is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.”

That demographic contradiction is nowhere more true than in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where a population of 800 million must subsist on local yields of 1 metric ton per hectare — one-third of yields in the rest of the developing world and one-ninth those of the US, Europe, Australia and other parts of the developed world.

Genetic modification might boost yields. Such technology is “critical for achieving the ecological intensification required to meet human food demand on a global scale”, says agronomist Kenneth Cassman of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. And genetic modification may prove critical to meet the challenge of crop stress due to climate change, dwindling topsoil and billions more mouths to feed. But it is illegal in most of Africa, according to political scientist Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College, and faces serious public concern and regulatory challenges in the US, Europe and other parts of the world.

Still, there is still plenty of room for improvement by more conventional means: the targeted application of fertilizer and the like. The Earth Institute’s Millennium Village of Sauri in Kenya has tripled yields even in the face of a crippling drought gripping the region, and Malawi doubled yields through fertilizer subsidies in just four years.

Nor is the growth of human population an unmitigated ill. After all, more people means more minds and hands devoted to solving the pressing problems of increasing yields, biodiversity loss and economic sustainability — as can be seen in many portions of Africa today. As economist Ester Boserup argued in the 1960s: population growth may drive agricultural innovation, from the plow to Borlaug’s dwarf wheat, rather than the other way around.

Ten thousand ton child

Yet apocalyptic biologists have a strong case as well. Fifty per cent of all temperate grasslands and forests have disappeared, largely under the plow. More than 16,000 known species face extinction (785 have already been lost) and as many as 12,000 species unknown to science disappear each year, according to biologist EO Wilson of Harvard University. More than 90% of some commercial fish species, such as cod, pollock and haddock, are gone. Water tables around the globe plummet precipitously, thanks to human withdrawals for agriculture. And population growth to 9 billion people alone will add as much as 2 billion metric tons more of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse gas blanket smothering Earth.

The inexorable increase in human numbers is exhausting conventional energy supplies, accelerating environmental pollution and global warming, and providing an increasing number of failed states where civil unrest prevails”, writes reproductive biologist Roger Short of the University of Melbourne in the introduction to a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B — a journal from the UK’s Royal Society whose motto is, “Take nobody’s word for it.”

Short goes so far as to call for a halt to future population growth. After all, the most profound way a US citizen can impact climate change is to have fewer children, since every American child born today will add almost 10,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere under current conditions — five times more than a Chinese child and 160 times more than a baby from Bangladesh. Having one fewer child would reduce a family’s greenhouse gas impact 20 times more than driving a Toyota Prius, using Energy Star appliances and other environmentally friendly lifestyle choices combined, according to researchers at Oregon State University.

Eating away

But the real problem today — as it has been since at least the time of Thomas Malthus — may be food. Simply to maintain today’s number of chronically malnourished or outright starving people — 1 billion — in 2050 with a larger population and present crop yields would require clearing 900 million additional hectares of land. At most, there are an additional 100 million hectares to add to the 4.3 billion already under cultivation worldwide, according to Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Programme at the Earth Institute.

Agriculture is the main driver of most ecological problems”, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “We are literally eating away the other species on the planet.” After all, humans now directly employ some 40% of the total land area of Earth.

Nor can the solution be found in the ongoing increase in nature reserves, which currently cover some 15 million square kilometers of the planet. “There are desperately poor people surrounding many of these reserves”, Ehrlich says. “If I was there, I would shoot the hippo and eat it too.”

Concerns about population growth often boil down to concerns about too many of the wrong sort of people, as evidenced by recent efforts to tie environmental and anti-immigration efforts, such as an unsuccessful bid by nativist John Tanton to turn the Sierra Club against immigration. After all, governments from France to Australia pay their citizens to have babies in an effort to ward off the baby bust — and those efforts seem to be working. Women in developed countries are having more children again, according to demographer Mikko Myrskylä of the University of Pennsylvania. “Increases in development are likely to reverse fertility declines — even if we cannot expect fertility to rise again above replacement levels”, Myrskylä writes in Nature. “We expect countries at the most advanced development stages to face a relatively stable population size.”

That does not include immigration, of course, which some environmentalists decry as a threat to the sustainable future of the US. Yet the US has only 80 people per square mile compared with 140 per square mile in Mexico, to take just one example. Immigration may actually reduce environmental pressures elsewhere — such as Haiti, where 760 people live for every square mile of countryside. And immigration remains the single most effective poverty alleviation program on the planet, according to economist Lant Pritchett of Harvard University. He argues that labour (i.e., people) should be as free to move internationally as capital (i.e., money).

It’s the consumption, stupid

Ultimately, the problem isn’t the number of people, necessarily. It’s what those people do. The average American (just one of 309 million) uses up some 194 pounds of stuff – food, water, plastics, metals and other things — per day, day in and day out. We consume a full 25% of the world’s energy despite representing just 5% of global population. And that consumerism is spreading, whether it be the adoption of cars as a lifestyle choice in China or gadget lust in the U.S.

Consumerism is now spreading around the world”, says Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. “Is this going to keep spreading? Or are countries going to start recognising that this is not a good path?

What’s needed is the wholesale junking of the disposable life, Assadourian says, “a world where machismo is not connected to the size of a car but the fact that you don’t have one at all.” That may not be all our fault. “We are not stupid, we’re not ignorant, we don’t even necessarily have bad values with respect to the environment”, says political scientist Michael Maniates of Allegheny College. “We’re trying to do our best within cultural systems that elevate unsustainable choices.”

The world already grows enough food to feed 10 billion people — if we all ate a vegetarian diet, Cohen notes. Such lifestyle changes may prove unpalatable, transforming everything from how the dead get buried to gadgets that last a lifetime or more.

As simply put by the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” In other words, we just might let the world go to the dogs.

David Biello is an associate editor at Scientific American, focusing on environment and energy, and host of 60-Second Earth, an environmental podcast. 

Photo: icekitty37 via freeimages

Further reading:

Tackling the three pillars of civilisation: consumption, population and the planet

Smaller households put ‘enormous strain’ on the environment

Feeding the world sustainably means investing in better solutions

What’s in a box? A tale of mass production

Consuming nothing to consume everything

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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