Greta Thunberg has captured the attention of billions, worldwide with her calls for action over the #ClimateEmergency by which she sees the world engulfed. If you would have asked anyone a few years ago how they thought the final awakening to climate change would occur, no one would have responded that a 16 year old Swedish girl with Aspergers would be the messenger. Alas, reality once again is stranger than fiction.
Thunberg is beyond her years, and unusual in her commitment and sustained focus on what she sees as the biggest challenge to our planet and our species. So many of us note this existential crisis in passing, and then go about our business burning fossil fuels, eating meat, and…procreating. And while Thunberg has been vocal about the first two, she has been silent on the third. Perhaps she is unaware that the global population has doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970, and that it is humanity’s runaway population that is the primary driver behind climate change. For those not paying attention, we just passed 7.7 billion, growing more than 80 million annually.
Thunberg is absolutely correct that humanity needs to undertake a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels. She is also correct that the global food system that allows humans to put tasty and nourishing food in our bodies must also fundamentally transform before our historic wildernesses – both terrestrial and maritime, are annihilated. But, even if these transformations are aggressively embraced by political leaders, policymakers, business leaders, professionals, journeymen of the productive class, and everyday citizens – we still will not be able to survive continued runaway population growth.
Thunberg is 16. So, it is unfair to criticize her for failing to recognize the population ‘elephant in the room’ when far older, far more educated and more worldly individuals are completely unaware of the population/climate nexus, or the broader population/environment nexus which accounts for all of the other ecological burdens caused by the larger “Human Footprint”. She is simply suffering the same cultural blind spot that most of the world has suffered from since abandoning the open discussion about the perils of runaway population growth back in the 1970s. Leaders of that era wrongly concluded that somehow, near vertical population growth would have no negative effects. Leaders of that era concluded that “Malthus was wrong.”
Indeed, Malthus was wrong. Indeed, humanity and its innovations could manage to feed a fast and continuously growing population. But, Malthus asked the wrong question. It is not “how many people can we feed?” It should be “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” And, while Professor Joel Cohen of the Columbia Earth Institute, in his 1995 book entitled just that, came to no real concrete conclusion, subsequent analysis has provided us a sound basis for estimate to conclude the unique and finite geography of our Planet Earth can sustain no more than 3 billion modern industrialized humans without accruing long term ecological debt. It is not just about atmospheric carbon and climate change, as many protesters will myopically have you believe. The larger human ecological footprint is much, much worse. As I like to argue, climate change is twice as bad as you think, yet only 1/10th of the problem”. And, it is driven by population growth.
As we hurdled past a population of 3 billion in the middle of the 20th century, this ecological debt has accumulated to a level that we can no longer service, and it is now coming due.
It is time that world leaders stop infantilizing everyone when discussing climate change. Stop worrying about how climate change anxiety will impact the mental well being of the next generation. It is time for everyone to sit their kids, their families, their neighbors, and the colleagues down and have an honest discussion about “How many people do you believe the Earth can support?” Then, perhaps, everyone will wake up to a real discussion about our planet’s actual carrying capacity, and attempt to live within it.
Most importantly, perhaps then societies across the globe will recognize and embrace the fact that it is women’s empowerment, women’s education, women’s integration in to the workforce and their access to family planning technologies that is the only real path to ecological salvation, and a planet that can actually sustain the human species over the long run.