Copenhagen Climate Change

All eyes in the world should be on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference as we wait with a stuttering heartbeat to learn about the policies that will guide humanity through the next great evolutionary bottleneck. The topic I will be keeping an eye on is overpopulation.

Overpopulation is the greatest ethical problem we face as a species as we begin to recognise our pivotal impact on the planet and start to actually do something about carbon emissions, pollution and poverty. If there weren’t so many of us, our levels of consumption would be reduced, our effluent would be minimised and our cultural habits would be manageable. But how do we go about ethically addressing the issue of population growth? I find it hard to condone China‘s one-child policy, but could the rest of the world be owing carbon credits to China in light of new research which shows that for every $7 spent of family planning we can reduce more than one tonne of CO2 emissions? One thing is clear, reducing the world’s population is a necessity but it is an issue that can only be approached through education not enforcement. A decade of lost opportunities to increase contraceptive prevalence was noted as recently as the 1980s (Diczfalusy, 1991). It is clear that now, more than ever, widespread distribution of family planning and contraceptive technology is crucial to our future on this planet.

To what degree is our concern about climate change altruistic? I do not believe that we are concerned about the health of our planet as much as we are concerned about our existence on it. At the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, are we discussing what changes need to be made or merely what changes we are prepared to make? And if so, how effective will such egocentric, ethnocentric and anthropomorphic changes be?

There are a few things I would like to know about the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. Did the attendees travel by plane or did they sail the northerly trade-winds to Denmark? Will the menu be meat free? Are they travelling by car from their hotels to the conference? Or will they choose public transport? I’m not sure if meat, cars and planes are things that many people are willing to go without! Slipping on a condom, however, might just be the barrier between our greed and our hypocrisy. During the UN conference, there will need to be unbiased decisions about what measures we need to go to, which cultural habits will be sustainable and what solutions we can implement in order to reduce our impact on the ecology of our world.

During a recent conference at UCLA, it was forecast that by the end of 2009 there will have been 78 million more births than deaths with over 95% of this growth coming from low-income countries. Coupled with the estimations that there are over 80 million unintended pregnancies every year, we can deduce that if we were to hypothetically reduce unintended pregnancies then supposedly population growth would be kept in check.

78 million more births than deaths – 80 million unintended pregnancies overted = negative birth rate of 2million

It is known that access to contraception, safe abortion and family planning decreases family size. It is also known that education, particularly of women, makes an important contribution to fertility decline. With the spread of access to internet resources growing, welfare groups might just have found their medium of communication for free education. The far-reaching advances in technology and communication is changing how millions of people in the developing world interact (Friedman 2005; de Blij 2009). With internet access even found in refugee camps around the world, free education has for the first time the potential to be a realistic proposition. Learning resources translated, animated and made available through the internet may turn out to be a primary access point for a significant proportion of the one billion young people aged 15 to 24 who live with limited educational and employment opportunities.

Al Gore is one of the most recent on the international stage to draw the conclusion that Global warming is the result of human activities (Gore, 2006). Perhaps he had already come to the conclusion that population growth only exacerbates the problem when in 1999 he opposed South Africa’s Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act aimed at providing low-cost AIDS therapy drugs to a population where 22 per cent of sexually active adults were infected (Wadman 1999). Western pharmaceutical companies have displayed little interest in producing drugs for the developing world, not only because there are little profits to be made, but also because they would not make as much profit in developed countries if customers realized that these drugs can be produced and sold at cheaper prices. Maybe Al Gore might not see a problem with this mentality when it comes to AIDS medication, but if those of us in developed nations would like to hold on to our natural luxuries a little longer then perhaps we should consider the cheap distribution of steroidal contraceptives.

It has been found to be more profitable for the big pharmaceutical companies of the Western world to keep all steroidal contraceptives available only through medical prescription. There is absolutely no medical justification for this cautionary action (Trussel et al. 1994) but covertly it enables the pharmaceutical companies to exploit doctors as their unpaid sales force, whilst at the same time maintaining a relatively high price for a product that is off patent, and could be made for next to nothing. This medicalisation of contraception denies access to those who need it most – impecunious, uninformed and reticent teenagers all over the world who are reluctant to reveal their nascent sexuality in potentially volatile and seemingly un-navigated social and religious settings. Western pharmaceutical corporations with their profit-driven objectives (Angell 2004) are not offering solutions. Donor agencies, however, can turn to the pharmaceutical companies of the developing world, such as those in China, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

Allow me to use Brazil as a case-study of population growth in the developing world. Brazil is one country where the morning-after pill can be obtained over-the-counter for between five and ten dollars. Unfortunately, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day puts the pill out of reach of a large proportion of the population.

Brazil is a country of stark contrasts between poverty and affluence, beauty and pollution, shantytowns and skyscrapers. The richest 10 percent of Brazilians own two-thirds of all the land and control more than half of Brazil’s wealth (Knapp 2002). It is believed that the poorest one-fifth of Brazilians, over 34 million people, live in the most wretched conditions prevailing anywhere on Earth, even including the megacities of Africa and Asia (de Blij 2009). The marginal are not the masses living in poverty, but the minority privileged.

In the developing world, Brazil is considered to provide insights into the likely future of urbanization elsewhere (de Blij 2009:188). With widespread corruption, crime and contagions, what kind of bleak forecast does this suggest for other nations? In terms of carbon footprints, Brazil’s carbon dioxide emissions already account for well over a third of South America’s emissions (Boden et al. 2009). Such statistics beg the question, what will happen when the consumption patterns of highly urbanized societies become global? The urban population is increasing much faster in developing countries than in the more-developed regions with the world’s total urban population expected to reach 5.1 billion by 2025.

The City of Rio de Janeiro is SEVEN TIMES LARGER than it was in 1900 and the City of Salvador da Bahia is FOURTEEN TIMES LARGER than it was in 1900. Over the last 30 years, the population of the State of Bahia in Brazil has grown by over 50%, while the population of the state’s capital, the city of Salvador, has grown by almost 100%. Since the 1980s, urban migration to regional capitals like Salvador has increased. This shift in internal migration patterns places enormous demands on infrastructure and has been accompanied by a growth of pollution, poverty and epidemics. Dengue Fever, for example, was first recognised in Brazil in 1981 (Nogueira et al. 2002) with successive outbreaks and almost three million recorded cases in less than a twenty-year period (Teixeira et al. 2002). Disease and poverty, however, have done little to stop the overall population growth in Brazil.

With the unmet need for contraception in low income countries calculated to increase to 722 million in 2015 (Potts et al. 2009), it is time for us to take action. Why should we be concerned about population growth in developing countries who contribute the least to the pollution associated with climate change? It is because these countries will be the worst affected by the inevitable consequences of global warming and unpredictable weather patterns. With rising sea levels, escalating fresh water shortages and the increasing spread of epidemics and contagious diseases, there is no doubt that resources among the world’s poorest communities will be limited the most. However, how can we expect the people of the developing world to learn from our mistakes, if we ourselves are not demonstrating the lessons learnt?

2000 years ago the world population was less than 300 million. By the time of the voyages of Columbus to America, some 1500 years later, the population doubled to approximately 600 million (Diczfalusy 1991). Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen, recently proposed that in the latter half of the 18th century the world could be said to have entered a new geological epoch which we should call the Anthropocene since that was when human activities spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, began to dominate all the ecosystems on earth (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000). It was only after the industrial and agricultural revolutions that the world population reached 1 billion, doubling by 1927 to 2 billion, and then taking only 50 years to double again (Diczfalusy 1991). In the last 100 years alone, the world population has quadrupled.

At the dawn of the Anthropocene, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, a clergyman, mathematician and Fellow of Jesus College, published An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society (June, 1798). Malthus calculated that human populations left unchecked would increase geometrically, whereas the ability of the Earth to provide subsistence for this growing population would only increase arithmetically. He concluded that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Natural laws imply a strong and constantly operating check on population. In Malthus’ view, the difficulty of subsistence would be continuously imposed upon a large majority of the human population who would always suffer from deprivation of the necessities of life.

Inspired by the French Revolution, many of Malthus’ contemporaries were optimistic about the future and viciously attacked Malthus’ bleak predictions. They saw humankind progressing ever upwards to a world of universal abundance, peace and prosperity, where all would be equal in health, wealth and happiness (Potts & Short 1999:286). The social reformers of the day, like Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Samuel Coleridge could not accept the idea that the poor might stay with us (Short 1998). Robert Southey, the author of the detailed History of Brazil (1810-1819), violently condemned Malthus’ theorem. “Mr Malthus is cast in his action against God Almighty,” he remarked, “I will gibbet him in a pamphlet, and draw and quarter him” (Poynter 1969:168). In the face of disbelief and criticism, subsequent events have debunked the utopian fantasies of Malthus’ critics and verified his dismal premonition about the difficulty of subsistence. Sadly, Malthus’ dystopian vision prevailed.

The economist John Maynard Keynes described Malthus’ essay as “a work of youthful genius” (O’Donnell 2006:399). However, the highest praise for Malthus’ work came from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently stated that Malthus’ essay was one of the most influential books that either of them had ever read, since it provided the key to understanding how the survival of the fittest could lead to natural selection, and ultimately the origin of new species (Potts & Short 1999:286). 

The exponential growth in population is contrary to Malthus’ forebodings. He thought that late marriage, high levels of infant and childhood mortality, wars, abortion, infanticide, plague, pestilence and famine would act as preventive and positive checks on further population growth. Malthus failed to anticipate advances in agricultural technology, the drop in infant mortality and the rise in life expectancy. However, he was also unaware of pesticides, detergents, solvents, bioaccumulation, hormone disruptors, developmental toxicants, carcinogens, acid rain, ozone problems and fossil fuel emissions. Global warming is just one among many threats to sustaining human life, wildlife and the natural environment (Potts, Pebley & Spiedel 2009). In some places, we are even turning our agriculture into a non-renewable resource (Diamond 2005). Today, when we consider the relationship between population growth and the physical environment, demography has advanced little beyond Malthusian arithmetic (Hogan 1992). In aligning our cultural habits with our ecological boundaries, we have done little to take control and sequester human population growth.

Historically, our track record at reacting to impending peril is fairly poor. Humans have lived in zones prone to natural disaster for centuries, and in full awareness of the inevitable dangers. Flood plains, volcanic islands, fault lines, hurricane regions and tornado areas have been and still are home to humans who have decided that the short-term benefits outweigh a catastrophic risk that has struck somewhere in history and will strike again somewhere in the future. History has shown that these threats have been misjudged by a species that miscalculates the profits and perils of place. Our brains have proven ill-equipped to respond to dangers that require substantial forethought. However, today, as the entire earth is fast becoming the site of imminent catastrophe, we are beginning to demonstrate the signs of overcoming our neurological shortcomings. The tools of culture that are giving us certain premonitions of the future are also giving us the inspiration to shape our fate. Notably, in the developed world, we are beginning to see the burgeonings of an expanded consciousness where people are becoming aware of peripheral issues and making them central to their lives in very active and dynamic ways. If we accept the assumption that “Larger populations make innovation more likely” (Bloom et al. 2009), then we can hope that human cultures will be able to adapt quickly to the radical technological solutions we will have to adopt.

As a short term solution to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, James Lovelock has recommended that there should be an immediate switch from coal energy to nuclear energy (Lovelock 2006). Certainly the French have offered us a model where electricity costs to households running on nuclear energy have been 30 to 40% lower than those of other European countries (Mallet & Lévêque 2009). With UN predictions that the human population will increase to between 8 billion to 10.5 billion in 2050, the conversion to nuclear power or renewable energy is one measure among many that will have to be given serious consideration and swift implementation in order to reduce carbon emissions.

A fatal flaw in economic activity was foreseen as far back as the 18th century by the pioneer Scottish economist Adam Smith who argued that the economic behavior was motivated by self-interest (Ashraf et al. 2005). In The Wealth of Nations (1776) he wrote that:

“The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire for the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture seem to know no limit or certain boundary.” (Smith quoted by Paganelli 2009:85)

Human culture empowers our Selfish Genes and no negative feedback controls have been identified (Short, 2009). The exploitation of the world’s resources through mining, deforestation, and the plundering of our oceans, is testament to the greed that Smith labelled as boundless and limitless. The technology that runs on renewable energy is already available. However, it is demoralizing that superpower petrol and mining companies are delaying the production and distribution of these technologies so that they can exhaust one resource before they turn to the next, thus keeping prices high during the sale seasons of both. It is abundantly clear, our productivist civilization and rampant consumerism neglects the fragile homeostatic balance between cultural behaviours and delicate ecological constraints.

Paul Ehrlich (1968; 2008) has argued for several decades that population pressure on natural resources and the environment is a contemporary issue that has been ignored by policy makers (Bloom et al. 2009). His often exaggerated arguments have left doubts, but for others it has become clear that “maintaining the population size does not seem to be a valid aim of population policy” (Bijak et al. 2005:27). If we do avoid a potential global disaster by reducing population size, strict socio-economic measures will have to be put in place to avert the negative economic effects of population and labour force ageing. In this scenario, policy makers will need to pay attention to the experience of countries like Japan where the fertility rate is around 1.3 children per woman (Clark et al. 2009). The projections of Bijak et al. (2005) for 27 European countries from 2002 to 2052, “show that the long-term consequences of demographic change should be treated by social policy-makers and politicians whose temporal perspective exceeds the nearest election, with due attention” (Bijak et al. 2005:28).

The first warnings of cataclysm predicted over 200 years ago give the verisimilitude of having taken too long to reach the public sphere. Only the future can tell if the measures we are taking will have been too little too late. If one was to bet on how much should be done, then in the spirit of a Pascal Wager, it is better to bet on the reality of overpopulation, urbanisation and consummation, exacerbating carbon dioxide emissions.

The world’s population was one billion when Malthus made his gloomy predictions. Today, it has increased to 6.8 billion. Malthus could not have predicted that it would be our own effluent, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which might be the ultimate check to population growth. The time-honoured phrase “The sky is the limit” has taken on a sinister new meaning (Short, 2009).

In new and imaginative ways, it is time for us to realise our humanity. Taking the message home to my fellow Australians, in Jared Diamond‘s book Collapse I recall reading that at current levels of production in Australia, agriculture is a less renewable resource than the mining industry. That’s a scary forecast! Diamond even goes so far as to state that the world’s driest continent can only sustainably support 8million people with its own natural produce. With politicians hoping to expand our population to 35million (for current levels visit the Australian Bureau of statistics), perhaps we need to seriously reconsider the relationship between economics and the environment. Our economy empowers our greed exponentially, but the environment has limits. The biggest carbon footprint you can leave is a child, so Make every birth a wanted birth.


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Bijak, J., Kupiszewska, D., Kupiszewski, M. Saczuk, K., & Kicinger, A. 2005. Population and labour force projections for 27 European countries, 2002-2052: impact of international migration on population ageing, European Journal of Population, 23, 1-31.

de Blij, Harm 2009 The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bloom, D.E, Canning, D., Fink, G., Finlay, J.E. 2009. Le coût de la basse fécondité en Europe (The Cost of Low Fertility in Europe), European Journal of Population/Revue Européenne de Démographie, 3.

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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

16 thoughts on “Copenhagen Climate Change

  1. Great stuff Paul! I really enjoyed reading this. I will slip in though that Copenhagen is going to enjoy a much more “business minded” agenda with most of the negotiation being centred around setting targets. And ofcourse the international platform will also be used by nations to strike certain trade deals between each other instead of focusing on carbon reduction! The lifestyle changes and realisation of living “sustainably” will be policy issues that are predominantly left up to each State to determine individually back at home.

    As you say education is the key and that is possibly the only unfailing hope in all of this as the issue is becoming much more recognised and centralised.

  2. “It is clear that now, more than ever, widespread distribution of family planning and contraceptive technology is crucial to our future on this planet.”

    I agree with you 100% about this … but knowing my species as I do, I fear the inevitable way it will be implemented. I am dead certain that when a small minority of people say this, that the very large majority with all the money and power hears: “Now, more than ever, we’ve got to find a way to get those bitches to stop having some many goddamned brats. LESS freedom for them! MORE government control over their innards!” And of course that whole mindset is what’s sending us over the cliff now, the mindset that says that Fertility Is Not To Be Trusted and must be controlled at any cost or else it will kill us.

    I do not trust any organization to just empower women, create equality and economic opportunity, and then sit back and let things settle out more positively from there. Empowering women to save the planet will rapidly turn into punishing women for deviating from a path mandated by men. Given a choice between educating and electing women preferentially, and forcing government-mandated oppression on us to “keep us in line,” we choose door #2 without fail. Don’t give a girl a scholarship — just put her in jail if she has a second baby.

  3. The world has a hunger problem, not a lack of enough food problem. By the same token, the world has a problem with distribution and use of resources for its population, not a lack of resources problem. It is only overpopulated relative to how we distribute and use its resources. Doesn’t a focus on population control keep us from looking at what the issue really is?

    1. Yes, and we will always have a hunger problem, because what a “hunger problem” is, is actually a politics problem. So we should allow for it and have fewer people. Otherwise, it’s liker refusing to wear a seatbelt because, in an ideal world, you shouldn’t need one.

      Yes, in an ideal world, you shouldn’t. We don’t live in an ideal world.

      1. Please define ‘politics problem.’ Because if the problem is that only a certain percentage of the population is going to have access to food the only thing controlling the population is going to control is the absolute number of individuals who are hungry, not the existence of hunger itself. “You’re part of the problem if you don’t accept that some people are always going to die horrible, needless deaths,” is basically the logic that says if you’re an American voter who wants progressive political change you have to hold your nose and vote a straight Democratic ticket. Because part of a politics problem is a cynical portrayal of human nature problem.

      2. “Only?” This isn’t a mathematical proof. Several billion people going hungry is by definition more awful than several thousand, and I highly doubt, as your comment seems to imply, that the graph is a linear one. In other words, I strongly suspect that the proportion of people who starve gets larger as the absolute number of people increases.

        “Because part of a politics problem is a cynical portrayal of human nature problem.” You say cynical, I say realistic. We need to plan for the fact that in the zillion years since we evolved, politics is always part of us. Not planning for that is irresponsible. Allowing people to suffer through wilfully ignoring is it unforgivable.

  4. To return to the demographic information about Brazil. During fieldwork I visited Brasilia and spoke with various employees from several government departments all of whom drew my attention to a recent survey of poverty in Brazil. The findings surprised everyone and demonstrated that obesity was a bigger problem than poverty because the diet was not sufficiently varied nor sufficiently healthy. Mass production and distribution of single crop-types leads to various issues the least of which is the impact on biodiversity. Mass farming of poultry and meat is also a key problem in the hibernation of new diseases. In some interesting conversations I had after some sessions on climate change at the Annual meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society, the need for an eco-centric view as opposed to an anthropomorphic view was highlighted and if we can, it is important not to skew the species population charts in any particular direction as we have been doing for ourselves since the Industrial & Agricultural Revolutions.

    I have both been informed and enlightened by the responses to the above post. Thank you for your contributions. It is great to see interested people engaging in open discussion about these issues!

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