The Environmental Problem The World Is Loath To Address

July 17, 2009|By Ron Smith

A quick question: What's the biggest environmental problem facing humanity today. Is it global warming? One would certainly think so judging from the actions of various governments, which are trying to reduce those manmade greenhouse gas emissions we hear so much about. Is it dwindling energy resources, running up against the limits of agricultural technology in feeding the earth's population, or perhaps diminished supplies of fresh water, without which life cannot be sustained? All of the above are exacerbated by the continued growth in the number of people living on this planet. Overpopulation is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the attic. It is the most disastrous environmental threat we face, yet one whispered about rather carefully since there are no apparent solutions to it that are politically viable.

Hopes for a happy outcome rest on projections that the world's population growth will stabilize at zero by 2030 or so. As we know, extrapolation of current trends into the future is often fanciful because unanticipated influences shatter expectations. Stock and housing prices, as we have so painfully been reminded, don't move predictably upward, there are limits to everything, and we don't know if the sustainable population of humans has already been exceeded. The Earth's population first reached a billion shortly after 1800, 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in late 1986, and 6 billion before we headed into the 21st century. In my lifetime, human population more than doubled. That, of course, can't happen again, but whether the current situation is viable is an open question.

On May 24, the Times of London reported that some of America's richest people met secretly to consider how their philanthropy could be utilized to slow population growth and speed up improvements in health and education. The story said the gathering included David Rockefeller Jr., Warren Buffett and George Soros, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and media tycoons Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey. The meeting was hush-hush, contrary to the normal trumpeting of gifts to good causes.

According to the report, these people, along with Bill Gates, have given away several tens of billions of dollars in the last 13 years to causes ranging from public health programs in so-called developing countries to ghetto schools closer to home. The secrecy may well have been prompted by the reality that many Third World leaders view contraception and female education as anathema to their societies. One guest reportedly said that a consensus emerged during the meeting that these givers would back "a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat."

A crisis lies just ahead even if population growth can be substantially slowed. It can best be understood by focusing on China, whose rapid industrialization and resultant higher standard of living means not only much higher energy consumption but also the ability to afford much more meat. More meat requires more grain. Retired oil executive Chuck Campbell, who pays close attention to these things, tells me that farmers worldwide now feed about 250 million tons more grain to animals than they did 20 years ago. It takes eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. You can see the problem. Higher living standards have a multiplier effect on the demands made by expanding populations.

Meantime, many of us know that the chief reason we have armies on the ground in Eurasia is to maintain control of the energy heartland of the world. But not too many folks are aware of looming conflicts over access to fresh water supplies. The World Bank reports that 80 countries have water shortages that threaten health and economies, and that more than 2 billion people have no access to clean water and sanitation. We can expect armed conflict over water to become quite common.

The 800-pound gorilla is stirring and will have to be dealt with, somehow, someway. All the rest pales in comparison.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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