Population stabilization is not enough to save Earth

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

October 24, 2013

As a college undergraduate years ago majoring in forestry and wildlife management, I took an elective philosophy course in logic. One of the key takeaways that I still remember more than three decades later is the crucial distinction between the words “necessary” and “sufficient.”

When it comes to population issues, I often find myself using these two words and drawing the distinction between them, as in the following statement: “Population stabilization is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for environmental sustainability.”

In other words, if we do not stabilize the human population at or below carrying capacity, it will be impossible to ever achieve environmental sustainability. However, even if we do stabilize population, sustainability is still not guaranteed, because stabilization alone is insufficient.

We also need the right technologies, and most important of all, the right values and priorities, in other words, a sense of ethics that embraces more than short-term human interests.

Our ideological adversaries on population – cornucopians both on the left and the right – would have flunked my college logic class because they misunderstand or conflate “necessary” and “sufficient.” They mistakenly or mendaciously conclude that because population stabilization is not sufficient, neither is it necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In contrast, most population activists recognize that excessive human population size and rapid growth are not the only causes of increasing threats to the environment, natural resources and other species.

China is an important case in point. If not for its draconian and much criticized population policies, it is estimated that today there would be 1.8 billion Chinese instead of “merely” 1.4 billion, a difference of 400 million, or 30 percent larger than the entire population of the United States. The authoritative Population Reference Bureau projects that China’s population in 2050 will be 3 percent smaller than its current population, unlike our own, which will be nearly 30 percent larger. Thus, China is well on the way to population stabilization, while America is still inflating like a balloon that will someday burst.

But necessary is not the same as sufficient. While China’s human numbers are stabilizing, its consumption of natural resources is exploding as China’s economy grows like gangbusters – double-digit or nearly double-digit GDP growth year after year.

This exquisitely beautiful carved ivory……caused the deaths of wild elephants in Africa.One of those natural resources is ivory from elephant tusks. Surging Chinese and Asian demand for ivory is increasing poaching pressure for elephants in Africa, and thousands are being massacred for their tusks every year. Gangs and militias swoop in on elephant herds from helicopters and kill them in cold blood with machine guns. It is an outrage. Conservationists are extremely worried about the fate of this most iconic of all great African beasts.

As a population activist and a wildlife conservationist, it troubles me deeply to contemplate that, paradoxically, China’s success in its slowing population growth may be contributing to the slaughter of elephants in Africa. As family size falls, families enjoy greater per capita income and greater disposable income. More and more are able to buy merchandise and traditional status symbols – like carved ivory and exquisite ivory handicrafts and art – and this would raise demand within the global illicit ivory market, and contribute to the slaughter of elephants.

This then is a telling and tragic example of why population stabilization alone is not enough to save the Earth or its other creatures from destructive human avarice and short-sightedness. Unless hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers can be educated and enlightened, the African elephant may be effectively doomed to extinction in the wild.

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