Thursday, March 06, 2014

population does matter


Green types have a difficult relationship with issues of population so I wanted to lay a few thoughts out here that I've been playing with for the last year. Whilst I respect the editorial independence of magazine editors to choose whose adverts to publish I must argue that  just because 'rich' people (Westerners) are barely replacing themselves doesn't mean there aren't too many of us already. I doubt you would argue that the population of the UK or Europe is within the carrying capacity of those regions. These regions couldn't be self-sufficient and maintain their standard of living. New Zealand is, of course, in broadly the same position: We rely on trade with other countries, exchanging manufactured goods and services for the raw materials we need to maintain our Western standard of living. There is no question that any Western country could isolate itself and maintain the quality of life of its citizens. Even Europe or the USA couldn't achieve this. Were does your raw rubber come from? Cocoa? How about sea fish? Yeah. The US and Europe have pretty much fucked their own fish stocks into oblivion and are now almost entirely reliant on hoovering up the last few abundant stocks off the coasts of semi-functional states of Western Africa or the Southern Ocean.

I also doubt you would argue that Western trade with developing countries is administered in a just and egalitarian fashion. Western nations rape and pillage the developing world, exploiting and perpetuating corrupt regimes that favour us in betrayal of their own people, exporting carbon- and pollution-intensive industries and enclosing beauty spots and natural wonders in opulent, manicured tourist bubbles. Western nations, therefore, should make trade more just; effectively reducing their population's standard of living or they should reduce their population to their carrying capacity to maintain their populations' current standard of living with the productivity and resources of their own region. This is a just solution but only the fantastically naive think its likely. In reality Westerners are often bigoted and selfish and whilst many pay lip service to the principles of equality and justice they really couldn't care less about starving povs in Bangladesh. There are many reasons for this, which I don’t need to go into here but the veracity of it is undeniable. All you have to do is ask yourself what would happen to a political candidate advocating a policy of global equality in any Western country. Were they to give advance notice of a public appearance advocating such policy they would be lucky to escape a lynching.

As a thought experiment, let's consider what the principles of equality and sustainability prescribe: In the ‘Global South’ lives the majority of the world’s population, often existing (I won’t call it ‘living’) in utter squalor and destitution. 80% of the globe live on less than $10 a day, 50% on less than $2.50. Those nations afflicted with the Resource Curse often foster an abundance of preventable diseases, extreme poverty, conflict and corruption thanks to Western influence. What if they could suddenly be magically elevated to a Western standard of living? The answer is that this would be totally unsustainable. To argue that everyone on the planet deserves a Western standard of living would be to argue for the rapid degradation of the planet’s biosphere and some sort of Starkian holocaust. The WWF’s Living Planet Report provides an example estimation of planetary carrying capacity. Other reports from more academic sources also suggest that human civilisation exceeds the capacity of several of the planet’s ecosystem services and functions. (Contrary analyses do exist,of course. ) A recent, and delightfully gritty example is reported by Naomi Klein.

So, a sustainable mean global standard of living is far below the Western one. Exactly how far below, though? Here's a summary table I made from the data on page 142 of the 2012 LPR. The units are global hectares per person. You'll have to read the report to work out how that was

Country/region Population  (millions)   Total Ecological Footprint Total biocapacity   footprint per billion people biocapacity per billion people footprint / biocapacity
World 6739.6 2.7 1.78 0.40 0.261.52
High-income countries 1037 5.6 3.05 5.40 2.94 1.84
Middle-income countries 4394.1 1.92 1.72 0.44 0.39 1.12
Low-income countries 1297.5 1.14 1.14 0.88 0.88 1.00

There are many fascinating aspects of this data but to make my point lets focus on the three columns on the right which I have calculated for myself (they're not in the report). High-income countries (I haven't checked whether this is synonymous with the "West") have much higher footprint and biocapacity than the poorer countries thanks partly to the Green Revolution but also to the fact that these temperate climes are the most stable and productive regions of the planet. A status which surely contributed to their enlightenment. However, the footprint of these rich countries exceeds their biocapacity by 84% whereas that of middle and low income countries are roughly equivalent. So for citizens of high income countries to live within their biocapacity they must reduce their footprint by nearly half. This is before we even broach the issue of any moral imperative to share technology and resources equally between rich and poor countries.

This is a substantial step down for the affluent nations from their current luxury. Whether you agree with WWF's figures or not, I doubt you'd find a significant difference if you went about reproducing this data in any reasonably objective fashion. The implications are clear and the point ought to be restated boldly: The sustainable and egalitarian standard of living for humanity is currently far below the current Western standard. You can’t argue against the veracity of this statement without invoking some sort of racist argument based on Western superiority or some deus ex machina technological development that will imminently and magically decouple lifestyle from our ecological footprint. Technologies such as decoupling carbon emissions from energy are theoretically possible. However, the window for their development and deployment on a scale necessary to mitigate climate change are implausible to say the least.

My point is that if you want to increase your standard of living, and let me state here that I do, then the ecological footprint of doing so must inevitably result from me dispossessing someone else in my society or from population reduction. I know which one I prefer.

As for the poorer countries, they are doing much better on the sustainability stakes according to the WWF numbers. But reflect upon that for a moment: the current ecological footprint of all those people living in destitute slums in Cairo, Nairobi, Manila and Lima are only just living within the biocapacity of their nations. There's only two solutions to the insufferable poverty these people live in: the nations can pursue development, raising their populations out of poverty and increasing their footprint to the detriment of their biocapacity or they can reduce their population and the biocapacity per capita will increase. In a just society these gains would be spread equally between the whole population. Of course, this isn't likely. One of the most glaring dysfunctions of Western society of the last thirty years has been the decoupling of productivity gains from income gains. I don't know if this applies to poorer countries but my innate cynicism whispers to me that they probably never saw the initial postwar gains in the first place.

The second solution to sustainability and equality is the same one I outlined above. Now, remind me whether population matters?

N.B. Please don't be so naive as to suggest that technology transfers cold allow poorer countries to develop their biocapacity for their own populations benefits. If you think this is in the least likely you have been living under a rock for the past ten years because Western countries, and the BRICS too, are only interested in transferring technology to poor countries for their own benefit through neoimperialist land grabs.