Population Matters

Which Comes First? Peak Everything or Peak Us?

September 14th, 2010

Andrew Revkin, the blogger (Dot Earth) and long time environmental journalist for the New York Times, has posed a thought provoking question for the week:  Are humans capable of influencing which comes first — peak everything or peak us? 

Unless you are complete fatalist, the answer has to be yes.  If there is such a thing as free will, we are certainly capable of reducing our rate of consumption and lowering our fertility rates to more sustainable levels.  We’re not as dumb as algae. 

But the real question, the one we ought to be asking ourselves, is, “What’s the easiest way to achieve a sustainable world for humanity?”  It’s obvious that the current human trajectory is not sustainable. Sooner or later, demographic push will come to economic and environmental shove.  And, when it does, we won’t be able to meet the energy needs and food requirements of an overpopulated, over-consuming, over-heated world.

So, how do we prevent the human species from “crashing” as a result of resource limitations or catastrophic harm to the environment? How do we reconcile a seemingly uncontrollable appetite for resources with environmental constraints and resource limitations?  These are tough questions. 

But here’s an easy one. What’s the easiest, most cost-effective means of “softening” what Revkin calls “the transition to some steadier state?”  The answer?  Expand voluntary family planning services.  Give every woman in the world the information, services, and power she needs to prevent an unwanted or unintended pregnancy. There’s no reliable estimate of how much it would cost to do that, but it would be a tiny, tiny fraction of what we expend every year to meet the needs of a growing population.  

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projected last year that a $3.6 billion increase would meet the family planning needs of 215 million women in the developing world and avert 53 million unwanted or unintended pregnancies. It’s less certain what it would cost to avoid unwanted or unintended pregnancies in the developed world, but the need is certainly there, and the ecological benefits enormous. As recently as 2001, half of all pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. 

Preventing unwanted and unintended pregnancies may not be as easy as it sounds, particularly in male-dominated societies where women have little to say about how many children they will bear, but the challenges of meeting the demands of projected population growth are immeasurably higher.  The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that doubling food production in the developing world by midcentury alone will require an average annual net investment of $83 billion, 50 percent more than what is currently being spent. And that’s nothing compared to what we will have to spend to solve the water scarcity problem or reconcile population growth with energy needs and climate concerns.

Expanding voluntary family planning services will not bring an immediate halt to population growth, nor will it solve all the problems of the world.  We might still have to spend trillions and trillions of dollars on developing renewable energy, expanding food production, conserving water, and building more housing, but it might give us the time we need to avert a massive, civilization-disrupting resource crunch.

Are humans capable of influencing which comes first — peak everything or peak us?  Yes. Are we smart enough? That remains to be seen.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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