Monday, 11 August 2003

The human population problem

The heat wave continues in the UK and the rest of Europe. Forest fires are causing untold damage to wildlife, and it will take decades for some of the habitats to recover. A few habitats, that are adapted to fire, will bounce back more quickly and some may even benefit -- but only a minority. And of course, the press is full of speculations about global warming. But a few hot summers are not indicators of global warming, and it really is rather futile speculating on whether or not global warming is occurring, and if it is, is it a result of carbon emmissions.

Whatever the scientists say, it will be decades, if not centuries, before we can answer many of the questions. There have been frequent periods of warm summers in the past, just as there have been decades of cool weather. Vineyards flourished as far noth as Lincolnshire in the English Middle Ages, then it got colder for a few centuries.

What is certainly true, however, is that for the past three centuries mankind has been chucking huge quantities of pollutants of various forms into the environment in quantities that are bound to be damaging to the sustainability of the planet. Rivers have been poisoned, forests destroyed, deserts created, and finally CFCs and other pollutants released into the atmosphere. Whatever the link with global warming, this cannot be doing any good to the planet.

But before rushing into alternatives, and so-called renewables, we should look at all of the alternatives very carefully. What are the hidden costs to the environment? Nuclear power once seemed a universal panacea to all our energy problems. It still might be, but what about all the security risks?

The fundamental cause of all these problems is the burgeoning human population of the planet, most of which seem to aspire to live at the standard of living found in the USA. This cannot be sustainable, but the movement to limit population growth that was flourishing in the 1970s seems to have almost disappeared. The effects of higher and higher living standard aspirations in Britian, include more and more land disappearing under housing developments. And each person demands a bigger and bigger living space, more resources to heat, and air condition that living space. So even a 1% growth in population means a huge increase in resource depletion. And while governments claim to be encouraging energy conservation, business is simultaneously trying to sell everyone more and more material goods, all of which require energy and resources to manufacture them, and more and more of those goods require energy to run them.

The only way such growth can be sustainable is if populations start declining. But it will take decades to reverse current trends -- unless war and disease intervene, which seems increasingly likely. Something to think about while sunbathing in the heatwave.

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