Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on the population issue

I just returned from a trip to the US National Combustion meeting in Utah, which was perhaps my last hurrah in combustion for the foreseeable future.  Here is the beginning of a conversation I had with a professor who shall not be named at the Sunday evening reception:
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.


  1. I'm curious, where did the conversation go from there?

  2. Wow just wow! Well if you ever come to Port Arthur, TX let me know and we can hang out!

  3. That is so ignorant. Thanks for sharing, it's always good to be reminded of how much foolishness exists.

  4. I have heard this more times that I can say - Black folks are to blame for nearly every ill - and the other ills are caused by all the other non-whites of the world. classic case of delusion.

  5. We actually had a pretty productive conversation. The professor's point was that everyone has the freedom to make choices for themselves, and that if people didn't want to live in poor conditions, they could choose not to. I said that that isn't always the case, that it is a balance between personal choice and structural forces. For example, he said that this dishwasher, a forty year old black man, who worked with his daughter had fathered nine children with six different mothers, and this man probably had some major issues, and that his choices were poor. While that may be the case, I asked him to not think about the man, but the children who are now growing up in an unhealthy circumstance. Their choices are limited, that these children aren't privileged to make choices for themselves and likely don't have many freedoms. Another professor came along, and they started talking about their children. When the unnamed professor was asked about his daughter, he said, "She's taking the time to explore options," and he looked at me and said, "She has the liberty to do so." Maybe a point had been made? But that doesn't take away from the absolutely crazy things that the professor said before he made this statement...I mean crazy.

  6. I am heartened that he was open to discussion. That makes a lot of difference in ANY conversation where you do not see eye to eye. It is sorely lacking in our world (western world, that is). Also, having never been really poor, Yet I still know there is such a "violence" in extreme poverty - a mental violence I mean....if you catch my drift. and it unnerves me when folks blithely say "why don't they just get a job or pull themselves up by their boot straps" -

  7. Might need to be named lest his foolishness and arrogance get the better of him.

  8. I think a better word (relating to my earlier post) is that extreme extended poverty + extreme prejudice (i.e. J. Stewart piece on profiling is one example) creates a "violence to the psyche".

  9. Patricia, that's a really insightful perspective I think!

  10. And what about the poor people living in the developing world -- is living in the slums without water or sanitation the product of bad choices, too? After all, most people have the freedom to pick up and move to countries where conditions are better.