dinsdag 24 september 2013

Overpopulation is a sentiment not a fact.

Ever since the 1980ties right-wing anti-emigration parties have campaigned with some form of the slogan that the Netherlands are "full". The main argument made against it has always been that it is an empty slogan. 
 A bucket can be said to be full but for a country to be full you need additional criteria.

Long before the arrival of labour immigrants from Southern Europe and North-Africa there were people complaining that overpopulation was rendering the country inhabitable. All the while the population kept growing and yet the country remained housed, well-fed and well-behaved.

Population pressure on 'nature' is undeniably there. Though I tend to think that it is mostly on the political right that it is taken for granted that those areas designated as 'nature' should be developed. But mostly new housing developments eats up former agricultural land and not nature. 

I like to think I have digested the central points of historical ecology (many landscapes now and in the past that were always thought of as undisturbed and pristine are actually the result of human interference), the anthropocene (human activity has turned our species into a geological force) and novel ecosystems (new ecosystems composed from native and invading species can be productive and healthy). We are living in a man-made world.   

One my favourite books is 'Something New Under the Sun' by J.R. Macneill, an understated book that ends with a brilliant analysis of what causes environmental destruction. Population pressure he concludes is never the sole reason for degradation of the natural world. He cites the lack of the right local ecological knowledge and the absence of an expected long term relation with the land as the main factors of pollution in the broadest sense of the word. Read it.

As said Dutch population is still increasing but cleaner cars, cleaner factories, and tighter environmental regulation has cleaned up air and rivers and the return of many animal species after long absences are the result. 

I have always taken for granted that there is enough food on the planet but that it is unequally distributed. 

Now, with all this in the back of my head I am well prepared to read Erle Ellis' NYT op-ed "Overpopulation is not the problem" (make sure to read this as well) and understand what he is trying to say: horror scenarios of overpopulation are overstated and the concern of 7.2 billion people eradicating the last bit of 'real' nature in our lifetime is a fallacy. Real nature as most people understand it does no longer exist anyway.
Overpopulation is a sentiment not a fact.  
There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future. There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature — a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever. 

The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.
This is the most important paragraph:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. 
I think I agree with Ellis central claims but I knew where he is coming from.
I know (and like) Erle Ellis' work on Anthropogenic Biomes as you can see here

But for most people the idea of an anthropocene and novel ecoystems are unknown and they are dangerous, contra-intuitive ideas that in the wrong hands could easily lead to a kind of environmental defeatism: "nature does no longer exist, let the Amazon rot." As was to be expected hundreds of comments deride Ellis without sparking the debate op-eds are intended to do.

It is not hard to see why: Ellis is making a big statement (even though the title is not his own) but he sounds awfully as if he is speaking down from the ivory tower: there are the big ideas of the anthropocene, there is personal journey of changing views (the confession the great American art) and it closes with a bold statement that asks nearly everyone to revise their deep held believes without giving any specification of how the 'better anthropocene' would look like. It needs more gentleness and better arguments. Where is the data, where are the citations? What is the vision? How do we get there? Does it for instance include gen-tech, a planned economy? is democracy a prerequisite or could North-Korea be anthropocene's best friend?

I think that we should be reconsidering easy notions on overpopulation and I do think Ellis is trying to address something important here but I hope he continues his argument elsewhere with more rigour. 
We need a discussion about the validity of the 'overpopulation' without ever forgetting that we need to take drastically better care of our natural resources. Because people are never surplus, because positive action (protecting the environment for all of us) is always more efficient and more engaging than negative action (birth control for others).

2 opmerkingen:

  1. "...people are never surplus, because positive action (protecting the environment for all of us) is always more efficient and more engaging than negative action (birth control for others)."

    Hmm? A green neo-positivist. I think I like that. I just made up the term . If my neologism is already occupied with a different definition then I apologize. Where do you now stand on the Dark Mountain Project?

  2. It's not so much the number of people - it's the marketing that informs all emerging economies that life is incomplete unless you achieve the fleeting material comforts enjoyed by the U.S. (where I live) and the other developed economies. In short, we need to shift the focus from cheap, disposable goods to more durable, quality goods that might cost a bit more initially, but have a much longer life span. You can buy a new hybrid car and think you're doing something wonderful for the environment; but the true saint is the driver who patiently cares for his 1983 Toyota, drives it infrequently, changes the fluids methodically, and views ownership as a long-term affair. Ballard has a dystopian story ("The Subliminal Man" 1963) about a world where everybody compulsively trades in perfectly good objects for the latest model - I think this has come to pass.