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Population vs. Consumption in the Climate Debate

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By Thomas Neuburger

I’d like call to your attention a piece by a Twitter friend, a man who goes by the name “Blackthorn.” His bio states that he is “an American living in Europe. PhD in social sciences (U. of London). Works in international orgs.”

The essay is here: “it’s not either/or”

In it, the writer looks at the relationship between global warming as a “technological problem: humans are using a means of energy production that pollutes” and as a “demographic problem, one of overpopulation.”

This consideration — energy production problem vs. population and resources problem — informs much thinking about our shared coming disaster. But not most thinking. You hardly read these days in IPCC literature about population issues as a driver.

As Simon Lewis puts it in The Guardian:

Every government now agrees that the climate crisis is driven by how the world’s wealthy – which includes much of the UK’s population – currently live, consume and invest.
This is a major leap forward compared to previous reports. The last IPCC summary on solutions in 2014 labelled population growth as one of “the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion”. Such dangerous misunderstandings are no longer present in the summary report. Seven years on, these old “blame the poor” arguments increasingly seem like a relic of a previous age.

Some writers contend that the situation is worse than Lewis admits; they say that the population-as-driver data is in the underlying scientific report, but was “scrubbed” from the Summary for Policymakers, the only document anyone really reads.

Side note: I suspect there are two tripwires in place here. The first is any hint of eugenics, anything adjacent to the desire that “some (others) should die so that we could live better.” Clearly a ghoulish thought.

The second is, as the writer linked immediately above says, a desire to censor “anything that might call into question the goodness of continued growth.” Economic growth, presented as “what’s best for us all,” is better understood as “what improves the lives of the already wealthy.” Anathema in this post-modern capitalist world.

But back to Blackthorn:

What happens if we look at this as an over-population problem rather than an energy-technology or excessive-consumption one? … The metric that can shed light on this issue ­– how much rise in emissions owes to development vs. to population swelling – is carbon emissions per capita. A rise in this indicates what you could call intensification of carbon emissions; a steady per-capita rate, in which the absolute increase in emissions tracks population growth, would indicate that emissions growth is population-driven. [emphasis added]

As to solutions, the need is to do both, in his view — curb growth and (humanly) decrease population. But in practice, what does that look like? If we could do both, what combination of levers achieves the desired effect?

It’s clear that unless and until there is complete conversion to non-polluting energy, population will be a strong determinant of emissions, and consequently population easing would reduce emissions almost in direct proportion. The question now is, can it do so fast enough?

The answer isn’t obvious, especially since human population decline, even at high speed, has a considerable lag time. But it is interesting. I invite you to read the essay for yourself. Again, the link is:

“it’s not either/or”

For the solutions discussion, start with this paragraph:

Let’s jump to possible solutions. Speed is of the essence, because deadly climate breakdown is happening already. How rapidly could we pivot to reducing carbon emissions, and start to re-absorb atmospheric carbon, with simple population easing as opposed to a switch to non-polluting energy or mass conversion to leaner lifestyles? Where would a steep level of population easing – an immediate decline in fertility to below replacement level – get us in a few years?

I’ll close with his closing: “the population vs. consumption debate risks settling into opposing camps with ill will and negative stereotypes – self-flagellating ascetics vs. Malthusian misanthropes. But it’s a false dichotomy.”

I wholly agree. Like so much else in this post-modern political world, refusing to take one from column A and one from column B — on the assumption that one of those columns is entirely evil — will destroy both columns and we who rely on them.

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