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GREEN ISSUES

Human Overpopulation

Ever since Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, positing incorrectly that humans’ proclivity for procreation would exhaust the global food supply within a matter of decades, population growth has been a hot button issue among those contemplating humankind’s future. Indeed our very success going forth and multiplying, paired with our ability to extend our life expectancy, has meant that we are perpetually pushing the limits of the resource base that supports us.

When Malthus was worrying about the planet’s “carrying capacity,” there were only about a billion of us on the planet. Today our population tops seven billion. While better health care and medicine along with advances in food production and access to freshwater and sanitation have allowed us to feed ourselves and stave off many health ills, some so-called Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by environmental factors related to climate change.

But others are less concerned given projections that world population will likely start to decline once the world’s less developed nations urbanize and start lowering their birth rates, as has already happened in Europe, the U.S., Australia and parts of Asia. For example, Europe’s “fertility rate” between 2005 and 2010 was just 1.53 live births per woman (the standard replacement rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1). Without immigration, Europe’s population would already be shrinking.

Of course, the immigration that continues to fuel population numbers in developed countries is coming from somewhere. Indeed, population numbers are still growing in many of the world’s developing countries, including the world’s most populous nation, China, and its close rival, India. Also fertility rates in Africa continue to be among the highest in the world, as many countries there are growing fast, too. Poverty and health problems due to poor sanitation, lack of access to food and water, the low social status of women and other ills continue to cripple these regions. Overpopulation could plague us indefinitely if fertility rates don’t drop in these areas, especially as they ramp up their Western-style development.

Globally, the United Nations estimates that the number of humans populating the planet in 2100 will range from as few as 6.2 billion—almost a billion less than today—to as many as 15.8 billion on the high end. Meanwhile, other researchers confirm the likelihood of world population levels flattening out and starting to decline by 2100 according to the lower UN estimate. To wit, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) recently unveiled research showing that if the world stabilizes at a fertility rate comparable to that of many European nations today (roughly 1.5), the global human population will be only half of what it is today by the year 2200, and only one-seventh by 2300.

It is difficult to say which way the global population pendulum will swing in centuries to come, given ever-changing cultural, economic and political attitudes and the development demographics they affect. As such the jury is still out as to whether human overpopulation will become a footnote in history or the dominant ill that stands in the way of all other efforts to achieve sustainability and a kinder, gentler world.

CONTACTS: Thomas Malthus, www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf; United Nations, www.un.org/esa/population/‎; IIASA, http://webarchive.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/Documents/IR-08-022.pdf.

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Anniversary of the 2010 BP Oil Spill

When an undersea oil well blew out 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010 and caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig above it (killing 11 workers), no one knew that an even bigger disaster was yet to come. Over the next three months, 4.9 million gallons of crude poured into the water before BP could get the wellhead capped to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to BP, which has already spent $14 billion on clean-up and restoration, the Gulf is returning to baseline conditions prior to the disaster. “No company has done more, faster to respond to an industrial accident than BP did in response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010,” reports the company.

But not everybody sees the situation that way. Many environmentalists are concerned that, while BP has done a thorough job removing visible oil from the water column and surface, little has been done to repair damage to marine life and ecosystems.

“Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold,” says Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). A recent report by the group found that the three-year-old spill is still having a serious negative effect on wildlife populations in the Gulf. For one, dolphin deaths in the region have remained above average every single month since the disaster. In the first two months of 2013, infant dolphins were found dead at six times pre-spill average rates. Says Inkley: “These ongoing deaths—particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin—are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem.”

Gulf dolphins aren’t the only ones suffering. NWF found that more than 1,700 sea turtles were stranded in coastal areas of the Gulf between May 2010 and November 2012—almost three times the pre-spill rate for the animals. Researchers have also detected changes in the cellular function of Gulf killifish, a common bait fish at the base of the food chain. And a coral colony seven miles from the offending wellhead struggles due to oil and dispersants compromising its ability to rebuild itself.

“The oil disaster highlighted the gaps in our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico,” says Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald. “What frustrates me is how little has changed over the past three years. In many cases, funding for critical research has even been even been cut, limiting our understanding of the disaster’s impacts.”

MacDonald and others are optimistic that a federal court will find BP accountable for further damages in a civil trial now underway. NWF says that substantially more money is needed to carry out restoration efforts vital to the biological and economic stability of the Gulf region. “Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over,” says NWF’s David Muth. “Justice will only be served when BP and its co-defendants pay to restore the wildlife and habitats of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico.”

CONTACTS: BP Gulf of Mexico Restoration, www.bp.com/sectionbodycopy.do?categoryId=47&contentId=7081352; NWF, www.nwf.org.