Thursday, February 15, 2007

All the people, so many people...

With childbirth at the front of my mind recently, I've been mulling over the population question. Part of this was stimulated by a brilliant letter in the Guardian on 27 Jan:

I have a simpler, more accurate way for you to judge your footprint. Count your children [my emphasis]. More than two (per couple) and you are living a lifestyle that is not sustainable in the long term. Your real carbon footprint stretches down the ages, via your offspring, and this long-term effect is the cause of most environmental problems in the world today, and tomorrow.
Dee Quinn

I haven't heard anyone mention the 'IPAT' equation for a long, long time. I don't normally do equations in this blog, but it goes like this:

Environmental Impact (I) = Population (P) x Affluence (A) x Technology (T)

So environmental impact depends on how many of us there are, how much money we have and the impact of the products and services (technology) we spend it on. Most of the debate today focusses on Technology and the "techno-fix" approach (keep flying, mate, 'cos one day we'll find a way of making those planes more efficient). Others, like George Monbiot, argue that constant economic growth will always wipe out technofixes and that we should start thinking about 'sufficiency' of our income to augment the 'efficiency' of technology. But the last of the three factors, population is the one almost no-one ever talks about.

There are good reasons why population is a difficult issue. Firstly, most people (me included!) believe that the right to reproduce (or not to) is a basic human right - how could we ever consider Chinese-style baby rationing in a free country? Secondly, the current pensions crisis is being caused by a bulge in the number of older people with relatively few people of working age to pay for their upkeep. Thirdly many world religions encourage large families to keep their numbers up, so there is considerable resistance to population control.

But just imagine what the world would be like if we had, say, a quarter of the population - everyone could live a Western lifestyle within the planet's limits and there'd be more open space left to nature. If anyone can come up with a solution that encourages a contracting population without riding roughshod over human rights, causing socio-economic meltdown, or involving bird-flu, then please let me know...

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At 9:48 PM, Blogger daharja said...

I think we need to look at lifestyle far more than population.

Case in point: my footprint is just under 1.0 planets needed to sustain me. In short, as a wholefoods, organic, downshifted vegan who lives well within her means, I'm sustainable, even though I'm wealthy (income well above average for my country - Australia).

By comparison, my mother's footprint clocks in at 11.7 planets needed to sustain her. She flies many times a year, eats a great deal of meat, lives in a huge house, drives a big car everywhere etc etc.

So its not how many people there are, so much as how how live, that counts.

I do not believe that this means we have a free licence to go and breed like rabbits, because we cannot control what others may do. But it very clearly indicates that lifestyle, not absolute numbers, is the critical factor.

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Gareth Kane said...

Your footprint is very impressive and must take quite a bit of effort to maintain. The question is how to make this the norm rather than the exception.

What I'm mulling on is that less people = more space and this is the one part of the IPAT equation that no-one dare broach. If we had half the population, your mother's footprint would be 5.85 planets - much better - and she wouldn't have to change her lifestyle so much to get it down further.

Food for thought!


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