We Are Breeding Ourselves to Extinction

All measures to thwart the degradation and
destruction of our ecosystem will be useless if we do not cut
population growth. By 2050, if we continue to reproduce at the current
rate, the planet will have between 8 billion and 10 billion people,
according to a recent U.N. forecast. This is a 50 percent increase. And
yet government-commissioned reviews, such as the Stern report in Britain, do not mention the word population.
Books and documentaries that deal with the climate crisis, including Al
Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," fail to discuss the danger of
population growth. This omission is odd, given that a doubling in
population, even if we cut back on the use of fossil fuels, shut down
all our coal-burning power plants and build seas of wind turbines, will
plunge us into an age of extinction and desolation unseen since the end
of the Mesozoic era, 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs
disappeared.

We are experiencing an accelerated
obliteration of the planet's life-forms-an estimated 8,760 species die
off per year-because, simply put, there are too many people. Most of
these extinctions are the direct result of the expanding need for
energy, housing, food and other resources. The Yangtze River dolphin,
Atlantic gray whale, West African black rhino, Merriam's elk,
California grizzly bear, silver trout, blue pike and dusky seaside
sparrow are all victims of human overpopulation. Population growth, as E.O. Wilson
says, is "the monster on the land." Species are vanishing at a rate of
a hundred to a thousand times faster than they did before the arrival
of humans. If the current rate of extinction continues, Homo sapiens
will be one of the few life-forms left on the planet, its members
scrambling violently among themselves for water, food, fossil fuels and
perhaps air until they too disappear. Humanity, Wilson says, is leaving
the Cenozoic, the age of mammals, and entering the Eremozoic-the era of
solitude. As long as the Earth is viewed as the personal property of
the human race, a belief embraced by everyone from born-again
Christians to Marxists to free-market economists, we are destined to
soon inhabit a biological wasteland.

The populations in industrialized nations
maintain their lifestyles because they have the military and economic
power to consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources. The
United States alone gobbles up about 25 percent of the oil produced in
the world each year. These nations view their stable or even zero
growth birthrates as sufficient. It has been left to developing
countries to cope with the emergent population crisis. India, Egypt,
South Africa, Iran, Indonesia, Cuba and China, whose one-child policy
has prevented the addition of 400 million people, have all tried to
institute population control measures. But on most of the planet,
population growth is exploding. The U.N. estimates that 200 million
women worldwide do not have access to contraception. The population of
the Persian Gulf states, along with the Israeli-occupied territories,
will double in two decades, a rise that will ominously coincide with
precipitous peak oil declines.

The overpopulated regions of the globe
will ravage their local environments, cutting down rainforests and the
few remaining wilderness areas, in a desperate bid to grow food. And
the depletion and destruction of resources will eventually create an
overpopulation problem in industrialized nations as well. The resources
that industrialized nations consider their birthright will become
harder and more expensive to obtain. Rising water levels on coastlines,
which may submerge coastal nations such as Bangladesh, will disrupt
agriculture and displace millions, who will attempt to flee to areas on
the planet where life is still possible. The rising temperatures and
droughts have already begun to destroy crop lands in Africa, Australia,
Texas and California. The effects of this devastation will first be
felt in places like Bangladesh, but will soon spread within our
borders. Footprint data suggests that, based on current lifestyles, the
sustainable population of the United Kingdom-the number of people the
country could feed, fuel and support from its own biological
capacity-is about 18 million. This means that in an age of extreme
scarcity, some 43 million people in Great Britain would not be able to
survive. Overpopulation will become a serious threat to the viability
of many industrialized states the instant the cheap consumption of the
world's resources can no longer be maintained. This moment may be
closer than we think.

A world where 8 billion to 10 billion
people are competing for diminishing resources will not be peaceful.
The industrialized nations will, as we have done in Iraq, turn to their
militaries to ensure a steady supply of fossil fuels, minerals and
other nonrenewable resources in the vain effort to sustain a lifestyle
that will, in the end, be unsustainable. The collapse of industrial
farming, which is made possible only with cheap oil, will lead to an
increase in famine, disease and starvation. And the reaction of those
on the bottom will be the low-tech tactic of terrorism and war. Perhaps
the chaos and bloodshed will be so massive that overpopulation will be
solved through violence, but this is hardly a comfort.

James Lovelock,
an independent British scientist who has spent most of his career
locked out of the mainstream, warned several decades ago that
disrupting the delicate balance of the Earth, which he refers to as a
living body, would be a form of collective suicide. The atmosphere on
Earth-21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen-is not common among
planets, he notes. These gases are generated, and maintained at an
equable level for life's processes, by living organisms themselves.
Oxygen and nitrogen would disappear if the biosphere was destroyed. The
result would be a greenhouse atmosphere similar to that of Venus, a
planet that is consequently hundreds of degrees hotter than Earth.
Lovelock argues that the atmosphere, oceans, rocks and soil are living
entities. They constitute, he says, a self-regulating system. Lovelock,
in support of this thesis, looked at the cycle in which algae in the
oceans produce volatile sulfur compounds. These compounds act as seeds
to form oceanic clouds. Without these dimethyl sulfide "seeds" the
cooling oceanic clouds would be lost. This self-regulating system is
remarkable because it maintains favorable conditions for human life.
Its destruction would not mean the death of the planet. It would not
mean the death of life-forms. But it would mean the death of Homo sapiens.

Lovelock advocates nuclear power and
thermal solar power; the latter, he says, can be produced by huge
mirrors mounted in deserts such as those in Arizona and the Sahara. He
proposes reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide with large plastic
cylinders thrust vertically into the ocean. These, he says, could bring
nutrient-rich lower waters to the surface, producing an algal bloom
that would increase the cloud cover. But he warns that these steps will
be ineffective if we do not first control population growth. He
believes the Earth is overpopulated by a factor of about seven. As the
planet overheats-and he believes we can do nothing to halt this
process-overpopulation will make all efforts to save the ecosystem
futile.

Lovelock, in "The Revenge of Gaia," said
that if we do not radically and immediately cut greenhouse gas
emissions, the human race might not die out but it would be reduced to
"a few breeding pairs." "The Vanishing Face of Gaia," his latest book,
which has for its subtitle "The Final Warning," paints an even grimmer
picture. Lovelock says a continued population boom will make the
reduction of fossil fuel use impossible. If we do not reduce our
emissions by 60 percent, something that can be achieved only by walking
away from fossil fuels, the human race is doomed, he argues. Time is
running out. This reduction will never take place, he says, unless we
can dramatically reduce our birthrate.

All efforts to stanch the effects of
climate change are not going to work if we do not practice vigorous
population control. Overpopulation, in times of hardship, will create
as much havoc in industrialized nations as in the impoverished slums
around the globe where people struggle on less than two dollars a day.
Population growth is often overlooked, or at best considered a
secondary issue, by many environmentalists, but it is as fundamental to
our survival as reducing the emissions that are melting the polar ice
caps.