The mainstream media rarely report about the role of population growth in environmental and climate disruptions, but the Op-Ed below was actually published in the high-circulating Swedish Social Democratic newspaper Aftonbladet a week ago. The original Swedish text is available here. The article gives a broad overview, ending with an unusual suggestion. There were 250 on-line comments, and the author expands on his idea after the translated text below.
By Anders Sirén
If we continue to become more and more people, each consuming more and more energy and raw materials, environmental crises will follow one after another. The only long-term solution is for us to reduce our consumption and become fewer people on Earth.
The so-called Kaya identity shows that total CO2 emissions are the product of multiplying four factors: 1) the number of people, 2) GDP per capita, 3) energy consumption per unit of GDP, and 4) CO2 emissions per unit of energy. Nevertheless, current climate policy measures focus exclusively on the third and fourth factors, i.e. technological solutions for improving energy efficiency and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The effects of such progress may, however, be cancelled out by continued growth in population and consumption levels.
Whereas the Kaya identity focuses on carbon emissions from energy production, one should not forget that these are only part of the problem. Significant carbon dioxide emissions also result, for example, in the chemical process of turning limestone into cement, and when natural ecosystems such as forests or wetlands are transformed into production landscapes. The climate crisis, moreover, is not only caused by carbon dioxide, but also by methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, which are formed in agriculture and livestock farming, landfills, and industrial processes. Finally, the climate crisis is only one symptom of a larger environmental crisis that also includes, for example, the spread of toxic chemicals and the loss of biodiversity.
Switching to wind power and electric cars, for instance, leads to increased mining and waste problems and are not in themselves long-term solutions. A much more radical transition is required, comparable to when man invented agriculture or with the industrial revolution.
Agriculture and animal husbandry drastically increased food production so that the population jumped to a higher level. This did not give people better lives, however, but rather led to more boring lives and poorer health. Many farming societies became grotesquely unequal as small elites appropriated basically all surplus produce while the masses barely survived. Vast natural areas were cleared to make way for fields and pastures. The industrial revolution, on the other hand, for the first time in history, brought a sustained increase in both population and human consumption, as well as greater equality and democracy. The downside was that environmental degradation accelerated even further.
The next transition must involve limiting our own reproduction and protecting nature. This transition has to some extent already begun, as over 40% of the world’s population live in countries where women on average give birth to fewer than two children in their lifetime, and the area of protected nature is growing. We need to accelerate this process, however, as the world population is still growing by 80 million people a year and natural ecosystems continue being replaced by artificial production landscapes at an alarming rate. Measures to reduce births must be based on voluntary action and financial incentives. The international community should simply pay money to women who give birth to no children or at most one child – a global reverse child benefit.
In terms of reducing consumption levels, the greatest potential lies with the world’s rich. A further reduction in the level of consumption is unthinkable for the world’s poorest, who barely have what it takes to survive. Human civilization will only survive if we succeed in a historically unique levelling of the gap between rich and poor.
The author responds to some criticism and comments:
“Critics of the article have concentrated specifically on the proposal of a “reverse child benefit”. Some have argued, somewhat contradictorily, that this for one part would be ineffectual because people’s choices about how many children they have are guided by other considerations than the purely economic, and, for another part, that it would be coercive and unethical.
There is, however, no doubt that economic considerations are important when people decide how many children they have. One important reason why Total Fertility Rates have fallen drastically in many countries in recent decades is exactly that people find it too expensive to raise many children. On the other hand, one explicit reason why governments in many countries pay child benefits to families with children is precisely that they want to encourage childbearing. Paying people money for not having children is of course no more coercive or unethical than paying them for having children.
One person commented on the potential unfair impacts of such a system on women who give birth after rape. This is an important concern, which highlights the importance of that any measures to reduce childbirths must be accompanied with investments in improving not only women’s access to reproductive health services but also their overall rights and living conditions.
The exact design of a “reverse child benefit” system remains to discuss. In general terms I suggest that the system should be world-wide in coverage but financed by rich countries only, thus also contributing to overall global equity. From a relatively young age, women could receive a monthly amount until they give birth to their first child, and then a smaller amount until they get their second child. This would of course not rule out that some who receive the benefits until 25 or 30 years of age then, nevertheless, end up having several children after that. Postponing first childbirth, however, in any case tends to lead to fewer children and slows population growth.”
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Anders Sirén is a biologist, geographer and PhD in rural development studies, based in Finland and Ecuador. His research has focused particularly on people and renewable natural resources in the Amazon basin.