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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

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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