Perspective, Population, and Pollution

Rethinking the impact of global population on environmental degradation

People are closed-minded. When it comes to ideas that oppose their own, most people will defend their position rather than give some serious consideration to an alternative viewpoint. Closed-mindedness may be understandable for conservatives. Conservatism, by its very nature, tends to keep things the way they are. So, conservatives defend the status quo that they believe is fundamentally correct.

On the other hand, closed-mindedness is a more unnatural condition for liberals. By its very nature, liberalism is open to a variety of ideas. Liberalism encourages change that it believes leads to better conditions.

Unfortunately, contemporary liberals, or those who consider themselves to be liberal-minded, tend to be closed-minded (or only politically liberal) on many issues. Take, for example, the key environmental issue of the Earth's population and its impact on the biosphere. It is notable that liberal environmentalists almost always equate people with pollution. A simple calculation shows how much of an inequality this relationship is when the claim is that there are "too many people."

Suppose we were to hold a global "population conference" to which we invited every man, woman, and child -- all 6.5 billion of us -- to one location on the earth. Let's allot each person an 18- by 18-foot area to set up a display table and pander any material they wish. How much space would we need to accommodate such a conference of the world's populace?

Believe it or not, we would only need an area the size of Kansas to give every single person on earth their own 324-square-foot space.

The critical question then is, if the number of people on earth is not the main issue for environmental destruction, what on Earth is? Several interrelated factors come to mind, like population density, politics, and individual choice.

The population density of Bangladesh is about equal to the population density of Fresno, Calif. Yet living conditions for the two groups are about as far apart as their physical separation. What's the problem? It's not "too many people"; rather, the natural and political climate impacting these two populations are very different. So different, in fact, that the adverse climate of Bangladesh limits the region's "carrying capacity" (i.e., the land can't sustain the number of people using it). And, even if the harsh land could be tamed (like Phoenix, Ariz. and Las Vegas, Nev.), maladministration and the nation's economic conditions would prevent a comfortable living for the inhabitants.

What about individual choice? Individual choice may have the most important environmental impact of all. Consider that one careless or malicious person can cause tremendous environmental destruction (e.g., a forest fire from a lit match). Or, how about a group of people hell-bent on destroying a civil society, like anarchists and terrorists, and all the mayhem they have and will cause.

Individual choice can also be examined from another angle: resource-use decisions. An argument has been made that people in relatively rich nations like the United States use much more than their fair share of Nature's bounty (called "consumption overpopulation"). For example, the "ecological footprint" of the average American is estimated to be nearly 10 times the ecological footprint of the average Indian. Using the footprint method to gain a perspective on resource impact, some have claimed that if the entire world population's consumption level was equal to the average American's, the land area and resources of five Earth's would be required to meet the needs of the world's inhabitants (see, for instance, Raven & Berg (2004)).

So, where does all this lead? Environmental perspective is necessary to provide effective solutions to real environmental problems. Improvement of the environment will move forward more rapidly if liberals and conservatives work together. Both mind-sets are needed to: 1) identify the real environmental challenges through quantifying and qualifying ecosystem degradation, 2) establish priorities for damage control and repair, and 3) design appropriate, cost-effective solutions.

Intelligent solutions to authentic identified biosphere issues will require open minds (genuine liberalism) on both the right and the left.

Raven, P.H., & Berg, L.R. (2004). Environment. 4th Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Anthony J. (Tony) Sadar, CCM is a certified consulting meteorologist (CCM), founder of Environmental Science Communication, LLC, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000). Sadar holds graduate degrees in both environmental science and science education.