Friday, July 25, 2008

Population futures, K and Fundamentalism

Environmental science has come to a point in its development in which it can predict future trajectories for the planetary environment. Among the issues being debated is the carrying capacity (K) of the Earth. K is one of the seminal concepts in ecology. In high school kids are introduced to the classic Paramecium culture experiments to demonstrate this concept. The theory says that environments are limited in resources and if populations exceed the K then the population will crash.

This is the concept behind "ecological footprint" which was first proposed by Mathis Wackernagel, in his PhD in regional planning dissertation in 1994. Wackernagel now heads the Global Footprint Network, a NGO dedicated to sustainability issues. Based on his latest assessment, we are now using 120% of the biosphere's capacity. Clearly this isn't sustainable and means we have overshot the planet's K.

Wackernagel's concept has been criticised for being simplistic in that it attempts to come up with an index of human population sustainability in terms of single dimension of biologically productive land. This land unit has to be converted into energy units and best expressed as the amount of carbon being emitted or fixed. But not all human impacts on the environment can be expressed this way.

Other one-dimensional quantities have been proposed. These include the basic resources,energy, water, food and other substances needed for agricultural productivity. But the values of these quantities are often interdependent. Economics provides the theories on how these are interdependent. An example is in the Arabian countries. Since oil is cheap and is the basis of their economies, it is feasible to desalinate seawater to produce freshwater. In most other places in the world, this isn't the case.

Quantifying the Earth's K is difficult since we have to understand the constraints placed upon by nature, the choices of people and the interactions between them. This is where the population issue and debate must be placed. For the good of human society,there CANNOT BE ANY ROOM FOR FUNDAMENTALISM.

Demographers have examined the historical trajectories of human population growth. While population has increased, the nature of the population has changed. About a year ago, our species marked an important biological and social milestone. For the first time, human society is mainly urban. This presents new challenges for us. While in the past, rural people were able to produce enough food for city dwellers, at non-intensive and less environmentally damaging agricutural practices, now they have to produce food for more urbanites. The per capita statistic is worrysome. A single rural farmer has to produce enough food for at least 3 urbanites. This means four people need to be fed,the farmer and the three urbanites. This would require more intensive agriculture that is more environmentally damaging. The solution will require that urbanites grow their own food. The surge in food prices this year is nothing but a symptom of this problem. Nonetheless rural people continue to flock to the cities. The challenge for urban planners is to make cities more sustainable first in food and secondly in energy.

The second demographic change is the aging of the global population. It is too simplistic to attribute this to increasing use of contraceptives. It is more objective to attribute this to the increasing lifespan and better medical care that people have received in the last 50 years. We have to think about the sustainablity of an ageing population.

The burden of old people to society has been tragically misrepresented in the current population debate. Old people are more healthy now than before. When they are healthier, they present less of a burden and more of a contribution to human society.

The cost of health lies in a sustainable environment, access to quality and inexpensive education and social support including marital and family status. Research has shown that a stable and ordered family life translates to better health in old age. Education that promotes empowerment and the ability of people to choose behaviours that promote health and environment sustainability correlate positively to a good quality of life in old age.

It is profitable for the state and society in general to invest in 1) environment, 2) education, 3) the stability of the family. These translate to social sustainability and environmental sustainability.

It is now obvious to the reader that this will require the co-operation of the state, the environmental advocates and the churches. The state has for its principle investing in education, the environmental advocates believe in investing in the environment and the churches promote and defend the stability of the family. In this working together no sector CAN DICTATE on another sector.

The tragedy that faces the Philippines in this debate is fundamentalism. The fundamentalism of the Left which says to shut down IRRI is an example and does no good for food security. The "Humanae Vitae" fundamentalism of some Catholics and their bishops is tragic. I need not expound on how this can kill. The pro-choice fundamentalism of liberals is another tragedy, it kills.

The only truth about fundamentalism is that it has killed, it kills and it will kill. It is anti-life no matter what spin is put to it.

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