THE DETAILS: Our current world population surpassed 6.8 billion people this past July, and every day, our planet sees a net population growth (that's births minus deaths) of 270,000 people, said Peter Seidel, author of 2045: A Story of Our Future, a futuristic novel about overpopulation and environmental catastrophes. Seidel was moderating a panel on our overpopulation problem at the Society of Environmental Journalists last Friday, joined by Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University, who has written about overpopulation problems since the 1960s and often advocates for hard-line population-control policies, and by William Ryerson, president of the Population Media Center, a nonprofit that educates women about family planning and reproductive health, using entertainment media like radio soap operas.
Overpopulation is often treated as a complicating factor of issues like poverty, starvation, and water shortages, but, said Seidel, it really is their root cause. "The more people you have, curiously enough, the more greenhouse gases you get in atmosphere," said Ehrlich. And it has a lot to do with our consumption patterns. The U.S., he said, has more than 300 million people, making us the third-largest nation by numbers alone. "But in terms of our per-capita consumption, we're by far the most overpopulated in the world." "Our emissions [in the U.S.] have tracked one-to-one with our population growth over last half century," said Ryerson, adding that the U.S. is currently the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. If the U.N.'s projection that world population growth will add 2.5 billion people by 2050 is realized, it will be the equivalent of adding two U.S.’s to the planet.
But the media tends to shy away from the issue. After all, it's more fun to watch Jon and Kate Plus 8 and The Duggar family, with its 19 kids and counting, than view them as environmental hazards. Tim Wheeler, an environmental journalist at the Baltimore Sun who was also part of the panel, said, "We look at this as an issue that's very fraught with religious and political baggage" because it encompasses issues of abortion, immigration, and the huge unanswered question of, "So what can you do about it?"
WHAT IT MEANS: Overpopulation problems are not easily solved, as most people believe they should have the right to have as many or as few children as they want. It's also difficult to fight the evolutionary instinct of parents to have children. So what can you do about it? Should we ask politicians to create and enforce draconian policies like China's one-child-per-family law? Those laws are unlikely, to say the least, to ever be proposed, said Ehrlich. "Can you see a president getting up and saying, 'If we want to have a better country, if we want to have a better world, if we want to have the resources that everybody needs, and we want to have our fair share of it, we've got to get a population policy in this country, that patriotic Americans should stop at two'? That'll be the day."
Perhaps the most immediate solution is to not force limits upon people but to reexamine our consumption patterns—and pass them on to the next generations.
Here are some ways to start lightening the load that any population puts on the planet:
• Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. We could all stand to follow that advice from an old World War II-era poster, which saves us money even as it shrinks our environmental footprint. Every product we buy, every gallon of water we spray on our lawns, requires energy to produce and transport. And we tend to buy more without paying attention to what we already have in our cupboards. Take food: The average American household throws away 14 percent of its food, whether due to spoilage or by just ditching leftovers. Eating everything in your refrigerator before you buy more food would save you $590 per year and would prevent millions of pounds of unnecessary pesticides from being applied to fields. Likewise, repairing torn pants or worn-out heels makes much more sense than buying new clothes made from cotton, one of the most heavily sprayed and water-intensive crops in the world, or new leather shoes, which often come from cattle that graze in deforested rain forests.
• Reduce and reuse. In the famous environmental mantras, we generally skip those first two r’s and head straight for recycling. But paying attention to reducing and reusing cuts down on the need to recycle, which itself takes energy. For one week, try living without paper towels or paper napkins; switch to cloth napkins and rags instead. Buy used clothes for your new baby (and for yourself, while you’re at it), or give hand-me-downs as gifts at baby showers. Buy antique or used furniture; it has more character than the mass-produced stuff you find in stores, anyway.
• Live with less. The recession is making all of us pay closer attention to how much we buy, but don't let that prudence fall to the wayside when times get better. Next time you're at the Container Store buying a new sock organizer or box for your shoes, consider whether you really need that many pairs of either one in the first place.