The following op-ed piece was published in the Boulder (Colorado) Sunday Camera of December 7, 1997 in response to the Camera's November 30, 1997 version of an article by Ben Wattenberg. That article appeared in the New York Times Magazine of November 23, 1997.
Boulder Sunday Camera, December 7, 1997
Malthus was wrong--until now
By Robert Cohen
In the Sunday Camera of November 30, columnist Ben Wattenberg
correctly reports that birth rates all over the world are declining and
that global population is beginning to level off. He then implies that
global population and its continued growth can hence be dismissed as no
longer constituting a serious problem. However, merely focusing on the
decline in fertility ignores an important dimension of the population
issue; namely, the rising _per capita_ consumption of the developing world.
In view of this trend toward increased consumption, there is real
cause for alarm about the potential impact of a growing and already
overpopulated world on the global consumption of resources. Critical
resources of concern include food supply, fresh water, energy, the ecology,
and a clean environment. And, even though there is an encouraging overall
decline in human fertility rates, the momentum of global population growth
is still projected to result in yet-another doubling of world population
before stabilization is achieved.
Danger signals that reflect growing global population/consumption
pressures already abound. On November 28 and 29, 1997, a pair of
front-page articles by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times describe the
overtaxing of the Asian environment associated with the increasing
industrialization and affluence of populous Asia. He quotes Daniel Esty,
director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University,
who states in his new book on Asia-Pacific environmental issues that "The
worst pollution in the world is unequivocally in Asia." Kristof concludes
that "Asian polluters are not merely sullying their own countries but are
creating environmental catastrophes that cross international boundaries and
create a burden for the entire planet." Indeed, the global-warming issue
is currently focusing public attention on the fact that China's carbon
dioxide emissions will soon begin to surpass those of the United States,
currently the world's leading contributor of greenhouse gases.
Another danger signal is the global food supply. Already about 20%
of the world's population is malnourished, yet so impoverished that it is
unable to obtain adequate food. Even though the Green Revolution has
contributed a surge in food-crop productivity and staved off a Malthusian
crisis, there are now some worrisome factors on the horizon. This
high-yield form of agriculture is energy-intensive, conducive to
soil-erosion and soil-degradation, and vulnerable to drought. According to
Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University, supplying the food being
consumed globally by people and livestock is already beginning to tax
available U.S. and global supplies of fresh water, of fertilizers, and the
limited quantities of topsoil, now being eroded at an alarming rate.
Paul Harrison, in his 1992 book, "The Third Revolution", points out
the vulnerability of the world's grain supply experienced during the 1988
drought, which caused a 30% reduction in North American coarse-grain
production. Exports from the world's "breadbasket" were maintained only by
drastically drawing down cereal stocks. Consequently, between 1987 and
1990, North American cereal stocks plummeted 68%, while world cereal stocks
dropped by about one-third, from the 'safe' level of 14 weeks of
consumption to a 'precarious' level of 9 weeks of consumption. Such
extremes in weather--which tend to become more frequent as global warming
occurs--can be expected to lead to future crop instabilities.
The built-in potential increment in global consumption associated
with current world population levels is a veritable "consumption bomb",
with its potentially explosive impacts on the environment resulting from
rapidly increasing the use of global resources, along with the impacts of
enhanced polarization between nations as they compete for those
resources--especially food and energy. Dr. Colin Butler employed that
phrase in the title of his 1995 letter "Defusing the Consumption Bomb"
published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Now that the world is overpopulated, with the overpopulation
concentrated in relatively undeveloped regions, the slow fuse on this
consumption bomb is being ignited as development occurs there. And as
global telecommunications continue to whet global appetites for increased
material consumption, much of the pent-up demand from the huge and
increasing global population will inevitably be satisfied by rapidly
expanding resource consumption, with a concomitant rapid increase in
environmental and ecological impacts.
This dismal forecast calls for serious actions to avert or moderate
an impending explosion in global consumption. There will need to be
global cultural changes, such as increased empowerment of women and
increased access to family planning. The United States--which is the
nation--urgently needs to stabilize its own population and moderate its
consumerism in order to mitigate the major contributions to the consumption
bomb resulting from the annual addition (about one-third of which is due to
immigration) of another three million Americans destined to become
overconsumers. The anticipated annual consumption of that many new
Americans is a significant fraction of the projected annual increase in
consumption for the entire annual addition to global population, currently
some 80 million people.
We must also take action to speed the global transition to
renewable energy sources and to increase gasoline taxes. And, for the sake
of humanity and posterity and in the name of caution, we probably ought to
slow down our precipitous rush to hasten free trade and globalization.
(Robert Cohen has a background in telecommunications, renewable
energy, and energy policy. He holds a Ph.D. degree in electrical
engineering from Cornell University. Currently he is a citizen-activist
working on issues such as population/consumption pressures.)