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When environmental writers are part of the problem

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Something's missing in today's environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist calls it "the silent lie." It's the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

John Holdren, last year's president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told us the whole story over a decade ago in an article titled, Population and the Energy Problem. In it, he observed that the total energy consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size multiplied by the average per capita energy use. Today, the developers of the "ecological footprint" measure, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagle, echo Holdren when they explain, "[The ecological footprint] for the world as a whole is the product of population times per capita consumption, and reflects both the level of consumption and the efficiency with which resources are turned into consumption products."

That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation, including climate change, is in fact well known to scientists. Yet statements to that effect get little traction in the mainstream media. We hear all about the need to save energy by switching to florescent light bulbs. We read about the ethanol debate and carbon trading schemes. We urge our representatives to establish tougher fuel economy standards. But in all the talk of ways of reducing per person consumption, how often does anyone mention the need to address the other factor in the the equation? In today's environmental writing, population growth is the elephant in the room.

What are environmental writers thinking?

Why the silence? Population growth received a good deal of attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But then came China's draconian one child policy, right wing groups pushing free market capitalism by cheerleading growth and dismissing the need to limit our numbers, and political wrangling among environmental and social justice groups, all seeking the spotlight for their own issues. The result was the demotion of population from its status as social and environmental issue number one.

Indeed, some writers today actively avoid the subject of population despite recognizing its importance. Not long ago, for instance, David Roberts, staff writer at Grist, made it clear he recognizes that to reduce humanity's ecological footprint to a sustainable level we'll need to deal with the population problem. Yet he acknowledged he never writes on the subject. His reason? "Talking about population as such alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison."

From what I've seen, Roberts's view seems typical of many environmental writers and organizations. And my purpose is not to single him out. He's merely one of the few writers who's been willing to speak openly on this subject. For that he deserves credit. But is his view wise?

What's better, truth or avoidance?

I have no doubt Roberts and most environmentalists who share his view are well meaning. But I don't believe the subject of population is, in fact, the "political poison" he thinks it is. Though they do so too infrequently and too quietly, organizations such as the UN and the AAAS, a variety of groups such as Population Action International, the Population Media Center, and the Izaak Walton League, environmentalists such as Lester Brown, and occasional writers in periodicals such as Science, Scientific American, the Guardian, and the Christian Science Monitor do grapple with it. And there's no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They identify population growth as a problem because it's the truth, and they know bringing people the truth is productive while avoiding it is ultimately damaging.

That some people jump to erroneous conclusions about "totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics" when they hear about reducing population growth (and ultimately population size) is no reason to avoid the topic; it's reason to clarify and inform. Addressing population growth means taking humane measures to assist with the social and economic issues which drive it. That means improving education for girls and economic opportunities for women in developing countries. It means increasing access to family planning and reproductive health care services, and encouraging positive attitudes toward smaller families. And it means reducing infant mortality rates. Any notion that it need involve involuntary measures of any kind is a distraction we mustn't allow to dominate policy.

Is silly, agenda-driven slander a reason to avoid the truth?

Roberts is right that some have tried to use the population topic to try to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. He's wrong in saying they've been effective. These groups presenting irrational arguments from such vantage points as the Christian right and the libertarian right have had, at best, a marginal impact. Their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic. It's unfortunate some of their arguments have been embraced by a small subset of the political left who see population as a distraction from their personal causes. In the US, however, after seven years of the Bush Administration's decimation of environmental laws, and a decade or more of elective mutism with regard to population, to blame any part of the environmental movement's struggles on the handling of the population issue is more than a stretch.

Consider as well that few who don't scour the Web for such niche groups' writings have ever heard of any negative connotations associated with addressing population growth. I frequently raise the population issue with people in "real life," and cannot recall an instance in which anyone has mentioned the connotations which concern some environmentalists. On the contrary, I've encountered almost universal recognition that population is, in itself, a problem needing more attention. Environmentalists who avoid the the subject of population out of fear of its "connotations" are fretting over esoteric arguments found only among other writers.

Time to correct a damaging strategy

What has been the result of this inattention? A few months ago, in fact, a major report from the UK, which solicited the input of scores of scientists, asserted that the last decade of neglect of the population issue had seriously hindered environmental and social causes. It has only hastened ecological degradation, the effects of which are becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, how could this inattention not have set back the environmental movement? It has meant a loss of attention to a key driving force behind our ecological decline.

We need to correct this. Environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population should rethink their stance. Let's embrace truth, not avoidance.
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John Feeney, Ph.D., is a psychologist turned environmental activist and writer. He writes on ecological issues at Growth is Madness!
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When environmental writers are part of the problem

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