This article first appeared in the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Rhino Club Newsletter.
Most, if not all, of the environmental progress we’ve made in the past 40 years could be undone in the next 40 by the sheer size and resource demands of our ever-growing, all-consuming population. The threat is very real.
This year a national park was de-registered(lost its legal status) in Mexico to provide food and water to a growing local population; the U.S. government announced it will cease reintroducing wolves to new areas because there are too many people; and record numbers of endangered manatees, red wolves, gray wolves and panthers were killed in the U.S. by cars, boats, snow mobiles and guns. The historic recovery of these and many more imperilled species is being reversed by too many people consuming too much and crowding out wildlife habitat.
Last week the Cabot Institute hosted a debate for BBC Radio 4’s Shared Planet programme, asking whether we can better manage resources to live within our planet’s means, or whether there are simply too many of us to co-exist with wildlife. Fred Pearce, science and environment writer, was one of the panellists. He argued that nature is dynamic and with better management of the resources we already have, we can reduce our consumption and live within the planet’s ability to recover.
Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Centre for Biological Diversity in Arizona, had a more pessimistic view. He believes that the human population is going to rise to a level far greater than the planet can sustain, and if we do not control our population level we will not be able to prevent ecological destruction on a global scale.
We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. The 2012 Living Planet Report by the WWF estimated that we lost 28% of global biodiversity between 1970 and 2008. Fred took a more holistic view, that while of course we have a huge effect on the natural environment and should try and minimise damage, nature is resilient and will fight back. Foxes invading urban environments, weeds in a garden and rainforests’ ability to regrow in 15 years show that nature isn’t as fragile as we think. Animals and plants that depend on very specific environments are likely to be more at risk than more generalist species however and Kieran argued that we have an “ethical responsibility” to keep all remaining species alive.
Every day around 870 million people do not get enough food. How can we hope to feed a predicted 9.6 billion people by 2050 whilst growing food more sustainably? Suckling described how industrial agricultural practices are highly damaging to the environment, for example pesticides which probably have a severe impact on bees. He argued that organic farms are unlikely to provide enough food for the growing population. Globally, 19% of forests are protected, but rising demand for fuel and agricultural land means we are losing 80,000 acres of rainforest each day and probably 50,000 species of animals and plants every year. The good news, Pearce said, is that that we already produce enough food to feed the predicted 9 billion people, although we waste enough for 3 billion. Recent reports showed that 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK each year. He argued that we should be encouraged by the notion that “we can reduce our footprint just by being more economical”. The real challenge is how to make people understand that food waste is both socially and environmentally unethical.
Fred mentioned that overall women are having half the number of children that their mothers had. This is in part thanks to medical advances, meaning that most children will survive to adulthood so fewer births are needed to build a family. It is also an education success story. Both the panellists agreed that “when education and freedom levels rise, the population starts to grow more slowly”. Opportunities for women to educate themselves will be critical in changing gender stereotypes and reducing the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. This is good news for human rights as well as managing our growing population’s impact on the environment.
The debate ventured into the ethical question of whether animals and the environment should have same right to live as humans. Does sustainable living have to be an “us versus them” question? Fred took a humanist view, but argued that we as a species need the services that nature provides. Kieran argued that we must not simply steal the most resources we can get away with, but live sustainably with other species.
Where do you stand on this issue? Are you prepared to structure your life around sustainable living or do you believe that it’s a problem for future generations. Must your children and their descendants inherit a world where the loss of resources threatens humanity’s very existence?