Minnesotans For Sustainability


Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.




Population and the Environment

Norman Myers*
November 1994

I am very glad that the two communities of population and environment have decided to come together. We will start by looking at some ways in which population pressures inflict upon wildlife and the environment generally. And then we will have a look at one particular instance of the clash between population pressures and the environment. We will wind up by looking at ways to tackle this problem a profound problem and turn it into a glorious opportunity.

Let's begin in Cape Town, the southern tip of South Africa. A peninsula, an area no larger than greater Miami. In that peninsula of land, stretching southwards to the sea, there are 2,500 plant species. Two and a half thousand in that little area! To put that into proportion, consider that in North America, the total number of plant species is only six times greater than the number found in that area, the size of greater Miami. And of those two and a half thousand plant species, at least 500 are to be found nowhere else on the face of the Earth. They are endemic to that area. If they disappear there, if they get squeezed out of habitat, that's it. They are finished. They are gone from the face of the Earth, forever. And they are getting squeezed. Cities are growing and stretching all the way down to the peninsula. It is partly because the poor people are coming in, but also because the rich people want a lot of land for themselves. The poor people have about 5 households to 1 acre, compared to the rich who have 5 acres to 1 household. Between the two, the plants are being squeezed into oblivion.

I was indicating that, with regard to Cape Town, there is a division between the rich and poor people. The poorer ones are in the majority planet-wide, and those numbers are growing daily. But it is the fat-cat people, if you will, who are causing a disproportionate amount of consumption of the world's natural resources, crowding out wilderness, pushing species into oblivion and causing massive pollution.

During the 1990s, each year the global population increases by 95 million. 90 million in the developing countries, 5 million in the rich nations--your nation (United States) and my nation (England). These extra 5 million people in the rich nations will cause more greenhouse gas emissions, which increase global warming, than all those 90 million people in the developing world. There is hardly a greater threat ahead to all our environments around the world than global warming.

Let's focus on one particular zone--tropical forests. Tropical forests are special because: [1] they cover a very small proportion of the Earth's land surface, only about 6% (an expanse about the same as the US), yet in that 6% there are well over 50% of the Earth's species, and [2] they are being destroyed more rapidly than any other major ecological zone. We must tackle this problem of tropical deforestation if we are to avoid mass extinction of species. When we hear that we are losing 100 species every day, 90 of them are disappearing in tropical forests. If we get on top of tropical deforestation, then no matter what happens in the rest of the world, we will largely escape a mass extinction of species. But if we fail to do that, and we allow tropical forests to continue disappearing, as they surely will, in the next 25 or 30 years we will have a mass extinction of species.

That is why I want to emphasize these tropical forests. Half of them are gone already, but the glass is still half full.

There are about 250 thousand plant species on earth altogether, and 150 thousand of them occur in the tropical forests 10 times more than in all North America. Some of these plants are very useful in terms of our material welfare. Frankly, I think we should preserve all species on ethical grounds; they all have a right equal to ours to survival. But that is another story, today we will focus on commercial factors. Take, for example, the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar. A pretty little flower with dull-looking leaves found in the rainforest. In those dull-looking leaves are two bio-compounds which have been developed by Eli-Lily, the pharmaceutical giant, to prepare potent therapies against Hodgkin's disease, childhood leukemia and several other blood cancers. One of the biggest breakthroughs against cancer has come from this little plant from the forest of Madagascar. Friends at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, told me that in tropical forests they have calculated another 20 plant species with capabilities to generate superstar drugs against other forms of cancer to match what we get from the rosy periwinkle. This originated in Madagascar; we can be pretty certain in Madagascar's forest there is at least one anti-cancer plant, almost surely a better contraceptive material than we have right now and probably a potential answer to AIDS. Unfortunately, 90% of Madagascar's forests are gone.

Madagascar's population is projected to increase three-fold before it stabilizes. And equally to the point, the average income of people in Madagascar is about 75 cents a day. They are among the poorest people on Earth. Because of their poverty, as well as their large, quickly increasing human numbers, they do not have the capacity to practice what we call intensive agriculture. So what do they do? They pick up their machetes and matchboxes and head into the only unoccupied land available the tropical forest. That is why the forests are being burned down. Too many people with too little income. Too much poverty. The two are inextricably linked.

Altogether on Earth, the number of people trying to live off an income of less than $1 a day is, believe it or not, 1.2 billion. That is about 1 person in 4. This number and the proportion is growing. The poor are causing incredible environmental damage. They are burning down the forests, they are desertifying the savannahs and they are cultivating steep slopes which causes enormous soil erosion. They are doing the most environmental damage in the tropics. And it is in the tropics where most species exist.

What are the root causes of this enormous problem? What are the forces that drive the landless, displaced peasant, the shifted cultivator, into the forest to practice a form of agriculture that he knows is not sustainable? One is poverty, as we have already considered. Another is the sheer shortage of land. There are also population pressures. In some of these countries, populations are growing yearly by 3%. That means an enormously fast doubling time of 23 years .

A projected world population growth graph suggests that we will increase from 5.7 billion people today to 10 billion by the time your children reach your age. Ten billion people.

We cannot support 5.7 billion, goodness knows how we would get by with 10 billion. The planet would be far too crowded and as a consequence we would lose millions of species.

But there are ways to tackle this problem. We could take 2 billion people straight off the 10 billion by meeting the unmet contraceptive needs of the 120 million couples in the developing world. Just think, that almost means as many adults as are in the US who possess motivation to space their next pregnancies. The result being smaller families. Many possess the motivation but lack the contraception, the family planning facilities to put their motivation into practice. Unmet needs should be met. It is a human right. Every couple should be able to have as many or as few children as they want.

What would it cost to meet contraceptive needs? You will hardly believe this. If the rich nations were to pick up their usual one-quarter share of the tab of these population activities in developing countries, the cost per citizen would be one penny per day. So it can't possibly be a case of how can we afford to do it sometime. The real question is, how can we possibly afford not to do it right away?

Many people in the rich world sometimes see the problem in the third world as a lack of self control, all those people having all those families without regard. But if you talk to people from the south, they might say to us, ah hah! self control. That means not just how many people we produce but their lifestyle and consumptive habits.

I dearly like your country. But fasten your seat belts because I am going to be a little critical right now. Reverting back to the issue of global warming. As you know, half of global warming processes are caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. Americans are in a class of their own when it comes to generating carbon dioxide. You have 5% of the world's population, yet generate 23% of all carbon dioxide emissions. All that is due, in major measure, to your love affair with the motor car, and your insistence on super cheap gasoline.

Let's have a look at this question of super cheap gasoline. I hear many Americans say, "We can't possibly afford more than $1.25 per gallon, it would wreck our economy." All of the other industrialized countries are paying far more than you do two, three, four times as much. In England we pay $5 to $6 per gallon. The government is talking about pushing it up to $8 to $10 per gallon by the year 2000. Our economy is not wrecked. The fuel price per vehicle mile in the US in 1989 prices, allowing for inflation, fell from 4 cents in 1980 to 2 cents in 1990. So if a carbon tax were to double the price of gasoline, Americans would be no worse off than in 1980. In today's prices, allowing for inflation, the price you were paying in 1980 was about 42.70 per gallon. That was what you were paying then, and you survived all right.

I have heard, since your elections, a good number of people in Congress say they want to increase the United States military capacity. You can already do such a good job with Iraq, Grenada and Haiti; there is no more superpower to stand up to. With half of your military capacity you could take on all those nations put together and beat them into a corner. Aren't we arriving at a stage where we could purchase real, enduring security by diverting $50 million from one more super sophisticated fighter plane and put that same $50 million into family planning, the relief of poverty, pushing back the deserts, soil conservation, saving wild species, replanting the forest, clearing up acid rain and restoring the ozone layer? Wouldn't that buy for you real security? It's a question that is being asked right now. More power to those people who are asking it.

Once again, to put a bit of proportion to figures regarding how we can afford aid to family planning programs and environmental protection. To counter under-nutrition in the south, through upgraded agriculture, it would cost $40 billion per year. Ironically, to counter over-nutrition through diet aids citizens of the north spend $40 billion per year. That does not mean that if we were to go on a big diet in the north, $40 billion would be released that we could send off to the south and fix their problems. The global economy does not work like that. But this is a way of putting in proportion some of these figures we have been talking about.

Many children face a prospect of a world which has been devastated of its forest cover and lost many of its species. Would it not be worthwhile to reinforce that enormous investment in the future, that grand gesture of hope in the future by chipping in just a little bit more, that one penny per day for family planning facilities? To insure that our children inherit a world worth living in. A world where population growth has been slowed to zero, with equity and fairness for all citizens on this planet, and where our environments are safeguarded and restored.

A final thought. Discussing the linkages between population and development is a difficult topic and we face some horrendously tough problems, but who would have it otherwise? I will share a very private thought with you, sometimes I get up in the morning and think I am just one person, what can I do? I am reminded of the definition of an optimist and a pessimist: an optimist proclaims "this is the best of all possible worlds" to which the pessimist responds "I'm afraid you're right." But then I think of all the good news. I think of the good news that has come from the Cairo conference. At last there is recognition of women's rights; that is the key factor in the population issue. And I think of this US administration restoring funding for international population activities that had been cut off for eight previous years. Then I think of all the citizen groups there are in the US and Europe. Can you believe that in Denmark there are now more members of environmental organizations than there are Danes?

When I think of all those things, I become ready to do battle with the problems. I say to myself, I live at a time when entire segments of the planetary ecosystem are facing terminal threat, we might lose all tropical forests within our lifetimes, the deserts might double and we could lose millions of species. This is a problem or a challenge that has never existed before, and I live at a time when we can still turn those appalling problems into magnificent opportunities. We can still save the planet. We still have time. The forests are half-gone, but the glass is still half full. This is a chance that no other generation has ever had and a problem that no other generation in the future will be able to face up to. Aren't we members of a privileged generation to be living right in the 1990s, to face up to a challenge of this size? And if we measure up to this challenge, and measure up to it worthily, won't we all feel ten feet tall? This is a marvelous time to be alive.
This is part of a speech given at the National Audubon Society's "Road from Cairo" conference, November 1994. From Population Press Vol 2, # 2, Winter 1995-96; Published the book, The Gaian Corporation: Towards a New Greenprint for Business and Society (Japan). Lectured in Japan on sustainable business.


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