My advisor: This is my student, Darshan. He just graduated a little while ago.
Unnamed professor: What are you doing now?
Darshan: Traveling, and then headed to the US Environmental Protection Agency in August.
Unnamed Professor: What are you going to do there?
Darshan: I will be working on issues of environmental justice and sustainability both within and outside of the EPA.
Unnamed Professor: To be blunt, the issue about environmental justice is just about a bunch of black people having too many children and choosing to live in polluted places.Perhaps one of the most insightful thoughts I have heard about the population issue in a long time comes from a 2008 conversation that Jeff Goodell had with James Gustave Speth, published in Orion Magazine and Change Everything Now.
Goodell: ...And you can say--as you do--that we consume too much, and that our economic system has become a slave to the idea of an ever-expanding GDP. But you could also just say, "Look, there are too many people on the planet--"
Speth: Well, I think a lot of people believe that. I actually have a law, Speth's Law, and it is that the richer you are, the more you think that population is the world's problem. But the scale of the impact is really derived from the phenomenal amount of economic growth in rich countries, not from the phenomenal population growth.Several facts bolster Speth's claim. In case of climate change, for example, the majority (~60%) of historical emissions of greenhouse gases has occurred in just the handful of industrialized countries in the US, Russia, Germany, UK, Japan, France, and Canada. Sticking with climate change (an issue laden with environmental justice issues), much of the greenhouse gas emissions in industrializing nations such as China are caused due to emission from the production of objects for industrialized countries. Even though the populations of China and India are increasing, the slowly increasing population of the US and the decreasing populations of Western Europe still have much greater ecological impacts. (I suggest taking a look at this [and this!] incredibly cool interactive graphical tool to visualize how the poorest are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and how blaming population increases in industrializing countries is misleading.)
Enough about climate change broadly. Let's get into the specifics of population. I will not deny that the world and many nations face massive challenges of population. But blaming population growth occurring today for past ecological degradation that has caused injustice today is to deny culpability, to shrug off any responsibility for our actions. There is no way to buy most electronics or textiles or food that has been manufactured or produced without degrading impacts. Our electricity comes from coal and fossil fuels, which require mountaintop removal and tailing ponds and people to cut down forests. By buying what we do, by using energy and electricity the way we do, we link ourselves to socioecological injustices of pollution and degradation elsewhere. Environmental injustice is about people being socioeconomically or politically forced into living in degraded places, most times to serve the wants of the rich and powerful. It is built into and a necessity of our economic and policy structures. The population growth occurring all over the world only serves to expose these injustices.
As you expect (and while I am sure he had to work hard to be where he is), the unnamed professor is not a poor person. He is a rich and now privileged person living in an industrialized country. I am, too. All in all, the per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in industrialized countries, the demands of heavy metals and plastics and chemicals, are still several times higher than those in industrializing countries. Therefore, individual action to reduce ecological impacts on the part of people living in industrialized countries is the equivalent of several people in industrializing countries doing so. Population is part of the issue, but individuals are, too.