ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES: ETHICAL ISSUES INVOLVING OVERPOPULATION John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A. February 2010
ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES ARE PRODUCED WHEN THE HUMAN POPULATION EXCEEDS THE CARRYING CAPACITY OF A PARTICULAR REGION AND INDIVIDUALS SEARCH FOR A MORE HOSPITABLE AREA. • Environmental refugees are already a serious problem in many parts of the world because Earth’s carrying capacity for humans is limited (i.e., overpopulation). • Massive migration from affected areas is toward areas perceived to have more resources than the damaged area. • The problem of human environmental refugees will continue to worsen due to both the effects of climate change (such as loss of agricultural productivity) and human damage to natural systems (such as massive deforestation). • Continued exponential growth of the human population, together with a marked increase in resource consumption caused by regional economic growth, exacerbates the problem of environmental refugees. • Irreversible change in carrying capacity means that a return to their homeland will be impossible for many environmental refugees. • Since ecological overshoot (i.e., using more resources than Earth can regenerate) is global, most nations, possibly all nations, have already exceeded their long-term carrying capacity for humans.
HARDIN1 REMARKS: “ONCE IT IS RECOGNIZED THAT THE CARRYING CAPACITY HAS BEEN TRANSGRESSED THE BATTLE CONTINUES ALONG OTHER LINES.” HE QUOTES ALDO LEOPOLD: “HERD REDUCTION IS LIKE PAYING THE NATIONAL DEBT; NOBODY WANTS TO DO IT NOW.” • Since significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions seems to have little political urgency and since ecological lag times can be lengthy, the environmental refugee problem could continue for decades or more. • “Limits to growth” has many prominent deniers, such as the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors: “The existing propensities of the population and policies of the government constitute claims upon the GNP [Gross National Product] itself that can only be satisfied by rapid economic growth.”2 • Finite resources and finite space per capita on a finite planet decrease as the population increases, which is currently over 70 million individuals each year. • For most of the 160,000 years that Homo sapiens has been on Earth, the dominant view has been that resources are limited – the present dominant view is that humankind will be ever more affluent in the future. The global financial meltdown in the first decade of the 21st century has weakened, but not destroyed, this current viewpoint.
SINCE THOMAS MALTHUS EXPLAINED THE PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH POPULATION INCREASE, DISCUSSION OF THE ISSUE HAS BEEN VIRTUALLY TABOO. • The ethical justification for population control is to avoid human misery. • In a global population of nearly 7 billion humans, more than 1 billion were starving in 2009 (www.globalresearch.ca). In addition, the number of malnourished people in 2009 was over 1 billion. • At least 2 billion people who are starving and malnourished, out of nearly 7 billion, is surely a matter of concern. • In the absence of reproductive prudence in humankind, Mother Nature (i.e., laws of nature) will eliminate the part of the population in excess of carrying capacity with starvation and disease.
DOES HUMANKIND WISH TO SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN EXIST ON EARTH AT A SUBSISTENCE LEVEL OR DETERMINE HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN LIVE A QUALITY LIFE? • Surely, few people would admit to preferring the present situation with over 2 billion people starving or malnourished. • In the present economic circumstances, the ranks of the starving will increase substantially. • Are very affluent people aware of the circumstances or just indifferent to them? • Does Homo sapiens really believe it is exempt from the laws of nature or has it enough documented examples to foresee its future if “business as usual” regarding exponential population growth continues? Is human intelligence used for delusions and denial rather than accepting reality and initiating action?
REDUCING HUMAN POPULATION SIZE WILL NOT ELIMINATE MISERY UNLESS THE VAST GAP BETWEEN THE EXTREMELY POOR AND EXTREMELY WEALTHY IS REDUCED. • On a finite planet, supply cannot increase beyond fairly predictable limits. However, demand can continue increasing indefinitely. • Satisfying demand at the expense of biospheric health and integrity is an unsustainable, short-term solution. • At a 1% growth rate for the human population, the doubling time is about 70 years, which is equal to the lifespan of some individuals in developed countries. At the same time, per capita consumption is increasing, especially in third-world countries. • The damage to the biosphere for most of the last 1 million years would be difficult to document. • At present, damage to the biosphere (e.g., melting glaciers) is evident to an observant layperson almost anywhere in the world.
NO MEANS OF POPULATION CONTROL IS SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE IN GROWTH ORIENTED CULTURES, BUT SHOULD BE MORE ACCEPTABLE THAN NATURE’S CONTROLS OF STARVATION AND DISEASE, ESPECIALLY PANDEMIC DISEASES. • Hardin3 remarks: “The community, which guarantees the survival of children, must have the power to decide how many children shall be born.” • When individual actions collectively threaten the biospheric life support system, which is the key to the survival of Homo sapiens, individual “rights” must be rationed. • Mother Nature does not recognize individual “rights,” only natural laws of biology, physics, and chemistry, which do not permit exceeding carrying capacity. • Homo sapiens is not exempt from natural law and should have the intelligence to recognize this situation.
EXPONENTIAL POPULATION GROWTH CANNOT LONG CONTINUE ON A FINITE EARTH. ACTIONS INDICATE THAT HUMANITY PREFERS A MAXIMUM POPULATION SIZE WITH A SUBSTANTIAL NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS LIVING IN MISERY. INTELLECTUALLY, HUMANKIND PROFESSES TO DESIRE AN OPTIMAL POPULATION WITH A SIGNIFICANT RESERVE OF RESOURCES FOR EMERGENCIES. • Human population must match resources available, which should dictate population size. • Carrying capacity is not static, so continued up or down adjustments will be mandatory. • Agricultural productivity is declining due to climate change, but, if all humankind became vegetarians, food might be adequate if it were equitably distributed. • If cat and dog food were no longer distributed, then more food of lower quality would be available for humans. • Tropical climate pests are moving into temperate agricultural zones, which will reorder calculations of food availability.
“PRIMITIVE” HUNTER/GATHERER TRIBES STAYED WITHIN CARRYING CAPACITY: “AS COMPARED WITH MORE ADVANCED CULTURES – PARTICULARLY OUR OWN – MODERN HUNTER/GATHERERS HAVE HAD EXCELLENT CONTROL OF THE SIZE OF THEIR POPULATIONS, SHOWING NO TREND TOWARDS AN INCREASE IN NUMBERS UNTIL RECENTLY.”4 • “. . . population checks [for hunter-gathers] were so widespread as to have been practically universal.”4 • “These checks were variable and took the form of abortion, infanticide, prolonged abstention from intercourse, and the postponement of marriage, the result being an approach to the optimum number in each society.” 4 • “It is better for the community to destroy an infant or young child whose chances of survival are small anyway than to hinder the mother unnecessarily in her task of food gathering. Cooperation and reciprocity are a matter of life and death for Aboriginal societies.” 4 • Present societies have superior means of birth control but do not control population size to keep it within carrying capacity.
TWO MAJOR OBSTACLES COULD HINDER ANY ATTEMPT TO STOP EXPONENTIAL POPULATION GROWTH: (1) THE ABSOLUTE REFUSAL TO MAKE PLANNED SOCIAL CHANGES SUCH AS POPULATION CONTROL, (2) AN ALMOST RELIGIOUS WORSHIP OF TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS (E.G., GENETICALLY ENGINEERED ORGANISMS). • The present resistance to changing from fossil fuels to non-carbon alternatives is an indication and example of how fierce resistance to population control will be. • Ironically, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions may worsen if humankind actually reaches 2 billion automobiles and other vehicles (1 billion exist now) as predicted.5 Such an occurrence is not sustainable. • When resources are scarce, resource wars are increasingly probable.6 Wars also consume resources (e.g., petroleum), rapidly worsening depletion rates. Wars also diminish the probability of equitable sharing. • No urgency exists in the general public and governing units in addressing the problems of climate change, overconsumption, and overpopulation – all of which produce environmental refugees.
Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Darla Donald for transcribing the handwritten draft and for editorial assistance in preparation for publication, and to Valerie Sutherland for converting it to Power Point. References 1Hardin, G. 1993. Living Within Limits. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 2Heller, W. 1971. As quoted by G. Hardin. 1993. Living Within Limits. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, p. 190. 3Hardin, G. 1972. Exploring New Ethics for Survival. Viking Press, Inc., New York. 4Dilworth, C. 2010. Two Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 5Sperling, D. and D. Gordon. 2009. Two Billion Cars. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 6Klare, M. 2001. Resource Wars. Metropolitan Books, New York.