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The human effect 

More effective birth control could stem population growth and its impact on climate change

Undoubtedly, the climate change is a grave phenomenon due to its devastating impact on the planet Earth. Nevertheless, the climate change is only one of a host of symptoms from a much greater problem hardly being discussed—the population explosion. Without it, we would not have a multitude of serious challenges facing humans and all other forms of life on Earth. David Attenborough insightfully described the level of human population on the planet as a multiplier of all other environmental problems. 

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The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Modern humans originated from Africa only 100,000 to 125,000 years ago. Below is the pattern of human population growth:

  • Year     Population (Billion)
  •  
  • 1804   
  •  
  • 1927    2 
  •  
  • 1960    3 
  •  
  • 1974    4 
  •  
  • 1987    5 
  •  
  • 1999    6 
  •  
  • 2011    7 

It is astounding that 300 years ago human population was only 1 billion and it is currently around 7.4 billion. According to state Department of Finance, current California population of 39 million is expected to increase to 51 million by 2060, a 31 percent increase. The Public Policy Institute has stated that as the population grows, California will face “increased demand on all areas of infrastructure and public services.” The Center for the American Association for Advancement of Sciences had the Pew Research Center conduct a survey. Survey findings indicate that 80 percent of the scientists consider increasing world population a major problem.

Most scientists and sociologists view overpopulation as a threat to human quality of life; it results in competitive pressure on life-sustaining resources. According to the Global Footprint Network, “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste.” Peter Raven, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, expressed his condemnation candidly, “During a remarkably short period of time, we have lost a quarter of the world’s top soil and a fifth of its agricultural land, altered the composition of atmosphere profoundly, and destroyed a major proportion of our forests and other natural habitats without replacing them. Worst of all, we have driven the rate of biological extinction, the permanent loss of species, up several hundred times beyond its historical levels, and are threatened with the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century.” 

University of California Berkeley paleontologist Anthony Banosky has stated that within two life times, we are in danger of losing three out of four species. There is broad consensus among scientists that the current extinction rates of species are at the highest level since dinosaurs disappeared 66 million years ago. Deforestation results in a loss of 20 million acres of forest annually.

Incessant population increase causes imbalance between demand and finite resources. It causes air, water, and noise pollution; depletion of non-renewable natural resources; and demands additional resources for education, transportation, housing, health care, and food, to name a few.

An exhaustive study by the United Nations Environmental Program labeled as the Global Environmental Outlook involved 1,400 scientists and took five years to complete. It concluded that human consumption far outstripped available resources: “The systematic destruction of the Earth’s natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged.”

Population growth has a devastating impact on water. It is impossible to list all water’s uses. Some are personal consumption, cooking, industry, sanitary living conditions, personal hygiene, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets, crops irrigation, sewage treatment, etc. The United Nations’ World Water Development report, issued in March 2015, estimates that the world would possibly have a 40 percent shortage of the water in 15 years. Consequently, there could be a breakdown of ecosystems, industries could collapse, disease and poverty could worsen, and deadly conflicts over water access could become common. The U.S. State Department declared, “Water is not just a human health issue, not just economic development or environmental issue, but a peace and security issue.” Climate change could alter the availability of water, threatening water security. Climate-change-induced drought would result in loss of arable land by converting it to desert.

Almost all scientists are certain that climate change is caused by humans. Research by James L. Powell, director of the National Physical Sciences Consortium, revealed that out of 69,406 scientists who researched climate change, only four rejected the idea that humans caused it. Thus 99.99 percent of scientists agree that climate change caused by humans is a reality.

The Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board is a government funded military research organization. Its report, published in May 2014, states that the precipitating rate of climate change poses a serious risk to national security. Climate-induced droughts cause global conflicts over food and water, escalating regional and ethnic tensions eventually resulting in violence. Rising sea levels are putting people and food supplies at risk in coastal regions, resulting in new influxes of refugees. Catastrophic weather events around the world will develop greater demand for American troops. Domestically, floods and extreme weather conditions could damage naval ports and military bases. Pentagon officials stated that the report would impel changes in military policy. John Conger, the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary of defense stated: “The department certainly agrees that climate change is having an impact on national security whether by increasing global instability, by opening the Arctic or by increasing sea level and storm surge near our coastal installations.” In March 2014, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s main public document on the current doctrine of the United States military, drew a direct relationship between climate change and terrorism, “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an authoritative report which also confirmed that there is “conclusive evidence” humans are altering Earth’s climate system. Its key message was that global warming is not just about melting ice and threatened animals and plants. It is about human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees, and war becoming worse. The report warned that if climate change continues:

• Coastal flooding will cause deaths and property destruction;

• Inland flooding will damage large cities;

• Warming, drought, and heavy rains will mean there will be no food for some people;

• Heat waves will kill older people and very young;

• Fishing communities will suffer economically due to extinction of some fish and other marine animals;

• The water shortages will bring great suffering to the poor in rural areas;

• Unpredictable and irregular weather patterns could possibly make life difficult by damaging what we now take for granted, e.g., electricity;

• Some land animals may not survive and it would adversely affect people who depend on them.

My suggestions below could be instrumental in controlling population explosion in the long run:

• Women worldwide should have access to education. It is proven fact that educated women generally have fewer children.

• Birth control should be available to women without a doctor’s prescription. A newly enacted Oregon law makes it possible starting 2016. A similar California law was signed last year, but its implementation has been delayed because the Department of Consumer Affairs is working on the applicable rules and regulations. 

• Affordable and easily accessible intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years should be available to women. Through a grant-funding, Colorado offered free intrauterine devices and implants for six years to teenagers and unmarried women under 25 who did not finish high school. According to Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment, birthrate for both groups dropped by 40 percent, and their rate of abortions declined by 42 percent. These methods are effective because they are long lasting, preventing pregnancy for years.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to solve these problems in the short run.


Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Mentoring Program for At Risk Youth at the Pacific Beach High School. He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to zafiqbalslo@gmail.com.

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