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ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES: ETHICAL ISSUES INVOLVING OVERPOPULATION

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Title: ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES: ETHICAL ISSUES INVOLVING OVERPOPULATION


1
ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES ETHICAL ISSUES INVOLVING
OVERPOPULATION
  • John Cairns, Jr.
  • University Distinguished Professor of
    Environmental Biology Emeritus
  • Department of Biological Sciences
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
    University
  • Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A.
  • February 2010

2
ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES ARE PRODUCED WHEN THE
HUMAN POPULATION EXCEEDS THE CARRYING CAPACITY OF
A PARTICULAR REGION AND INDIVIDUALS SEARCH FOR A
MORE HOSPITABLE AREA.
  • Environmental refugees are already a serious
    problem in many parts of the world because
    Earths carrying capacity for humans is limited
    (i.e., overpopulation).
  • Massive migration from affected areas is toward
    areas perceived to have more resources than the
    damaged area.
  • The problem of human environmental refugees will
    continue to worsen due to both the effects of
    climate change (such as loss of agricultural
    productivity) and human damage to natural systems
    (such as massive deforestation).
  • Continued exponential growth of the human
    population, together with a marked increase in
    resource consumption caused by regional economic
    growth, exacerbates the problem of environmental
    refugees.
  • Irreversible change in carrying capacity means
    that a return to their homeland will be
    impossible for many environmental refugees.
  • Since ecological overshoot (i.e., using more
    resources than Earth can regenerate) is global,
    most nations, possibly all nations, have already
    exceeded their long-term carrying capacity for
    humans.

3
HARDIN1 REMARKS ONCE IT IS
RECOGNIZED THAT THE CARRYING CAPACITY HAS BEEN
TRANSGRESSED THE BATTLE CONTINUES ALONG OTHER
LINES. HE QUOTES ALDO LEOPOLD HERD
REDUCTION IS LIKE PAYING THE NATIONAL DEBT
NOBODY WANTS TO DO IT NOW.
  • Since significantly reducing greenhouse gas
    emissions seems to have little political urgency
    and since ecological lag times can be lengthy,
    the environmental refugee problem could continue
    for decades or more.
  • Limits to growth has many prominent deniers,
    such as the US Presidents Council of Economic
    Advisors The existing propensities of the
    population and policies of the government
    constitute claims upon the GNP Gross National
    Product itself that can only be satisfied by
    rapid economic growth.2
  • Finite resources and finite space per capita on a
    finite planet decrease as the population
    increases, which is currently over 70 million
    individuals each year.
  • For most of the 160,000 years that Homo sapiens
    has been on Earth, the dominant view has been
    that resources are limited the present dominant
    view is that humankind will be ever more affluent
    in the future. The global financial meltdown in
    the first decade of the 21st century has
    weakened, but not destroyed, this current
    viewpoint.

4
SINCE THOMAS MALTHUS EXPLAINED THE
PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH POPULATION INCREASE,
DISCUSSION OF THE ISSUE HAS BEEN
VIRTUALLY TABOO.
  • The ethical justification for population control
    is to avoid human misery.
  • In a global population of nearly 7 billion
    humans, more than 1 billion were starving in 2009
    (www.globalresearch.ca). In addition, the number
    of malnourished people in 2009 was over 1
    billion.
  • At least 2 billion people who are starving and
    malnourished, out of nearly 7 billion, is surely
    a matter of concern.
  • In the absence of reproductive prudence in
    humankind, Mother Nature (i.e., laws of nature)
    will eliminate the part of the population in
    excess of carrying capacity with starvation and
    disease.

5
DOES HUMANKIND WISH TO SEE HOW
MANY PEOPLE CAN EXIST ON EARTH AT A SUBSISTENCE
LEVEL OR DETERMINE HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN LIVE A
QUALITY LIFE?
  • Surely, few people would admit to preferring the
    present situation with over 2 billion people
    starving or malnourished.
  • In the present economic circumstances, the ranks
    of the starving will increase substantially.
  • Are very affluent people aware of the
    circumstances or just indifferent to them?
  • Does Homo sapiens really believe it is exempt
    from the laws of nature or has it enough
    documented examples to foresee its future if
    business as usual regarding exponential
    population growth continues? Is human
    intelligence used for delusions and denial rather
    than accepting reality and initiating action?

6
REDUCING HUMAN POPULATION SIZE WILL
NOT ELIMINATE MISERY UNLESS THE VAST GAP BETWEEN
THE EXTREMELY POOR AND
EXTREMELY WEALTHY IS REDUCED.
  • On a finite planet, supply cannot increase beyond
    fairly predictable limits. However, demand can
    continue increasing indefinitely.
  • Satisfying demand at the expense of biospheric
    health and integrity is an unsustainable,
    short-term solution.
  • At a 1 growth rate for the human population, the
    doubling time is about 70 years, which is equal
    to the lifespan of some individuals in developed
    countries. At the same time, per capita
    consumption is increasing, especially in
    third-world countries.
  • The damage to the biosphere for most of the last
    1 million years would be difficult to document.
  • At present, damage to the biosphere (e.g.,
    melting glaciers) is evident to an observant
    layperson almost anywhere in the world.

7
NO MEANS OF POPULATION CONTROL IS
SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE IN GROWTH ORIENTED CULTURES,
BUT SHOULD BE MORE ACCEPTABLE THAN
NATURES CONTROLS OF STARVATION AND DISEASE,
ESPECIALLY PANDEMIC DISEASES.
  • Hardin3 remarks The community, which
    guarantees the survival of children, must have
    the power to decide how many children shall be
    born.
  • When individual actions collectively threaten the
    biospheric life support system, which is the key
    to the survival of Homo sapiens, individual
    rights must be rationed.
  • Mother Nature does not recognize individual
    rights, only natural laws of biology, physics,
    and chemistry, which do not permit exceeding
    carrying capacity.
  • Homo sapiens is not exempt from natural law and
    should have the intelligence to recognize this
    situation.

8
EXPONENTIAL POPULATION GROWTH CANNOT
LONG CONTINUE ON A FINITE EARTH. ACTIONS
INDICATE THAT HUMANITY PREFERS A MAXIMUM
POPULATION SIZE WITH A SUBSTANTIAL NUMBER OF
INDIVIDUALS LIVING IN MISERY. INTELLECTUALLY,
HUMANKIND PROFESSES TO DESIRE AN OPTIMAL
POPULATION WITH A SIGNIFICANT RESERVE
OF RESOURCES FOR EMERGENCIES.
  • Human population must match resources available,
    which should dictate population size.
  • Carrying capacity is not static, so continued up
    or down adjustments will be mandatory.
  • Agricultural productivity is declining due to
    climate change, but, if all humankind became
    vegetarians, food might be adequate if it were
    equitably distributed.
  • If cat and dog food were no longer distributed,
    then more food of lower quality would be
    available for humans.
  • Tropical climate pests are moving into temperate
    agricultural zones, which will reorder
    calculations of food availability.

9
PRIMITIVE HUNTER/GATHERER TRIBES
STAYED WITHIN CARRYING CAPACITY AS COMPARED
WITH MORE ADVANCED CULTURES PARTICULARLY OUR
OWN MODERN HUNTER/GATHERERS HAVE HAD EXCELLENT
CONTROL OF THE SIZE OF THEIR POPULATIONS,
SHOWING NO TREND TOWARDS AN INCREASE IN NUMBERS
UNTIL RECENTLY.4
  • . . . population checks for hunter-gathers
    were so widespread as to have been practically
    universal.4
  • These checks were variable and took the form of
    abortion, infanticide, prolonged abstention from
    intercourse, and the postponement of marriage,
    the result being an approach to the optimum
    number in each society. 4
  • It is better for the community to destroy an
    infant or young child whose chances of survival
    are small anyway than to hinder the mother
    unnecessarily in her task of food gathering.
    Cooperation and reciprocity are a matter of life
    and death for Aboriginal societies. 4
  • Present societies have superior means of birth
    control but do not control population size to
    keep it within carrying capacity.

10
TWO MAJOR OBSTACLES COULD HINDER ANY
ATTEMPT TO STOP EXPONENTIAL POPULATION GROWTH
(1) THE ABSOLUTE REFUSAL TO MAKE PLANNED SOCIAL
CHANGES SUCH AS POPULATION CONTROL, (2) AN
ALMOST RELIGIOUS WORSHIP OF TECHNOLOGICAL
SOLUTIONS (E.G., GENETICALLY ENGINEERED
ORGANISMS).
  • The present resistance to changing from fossil
    fuels to non-carbon alternatives is an indication
    and example of how fierce resistance to
    population control will be.
  • Ironically, anthropogenic greenhouse gas
    emissions may worsen if humankind actually
    reaches 2 billion automobiles and other vehicles
  • (1 billion exist now) as predicted.5 Such an
    occurrence is not sustainable.
  • When resources are scarce, resource wars are
    increasingly probable.6 Wars also consume
    resources (e.g., petroleum), rapidly worsening
    depletion rates. Wars also diminish the
    probability of equitable sharing.
  • No urgency exists in the general public and
    governing units in addressing the problems of
    climate change, overconsumption, and
    overpopulation all of which produce
    environmental refugees.

11
Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Darla Donald
for transcribing the handwritten draft and for
editorial assistance in preparation for
publication, and to Valerie Sutherland for
converting it to Power Point.
References 1Hardin, G. 1993. Living Within
Limits. Oxford University Press, Oxford,
UK. 2Heller, W. 1971. As quoted by G. Hardin.
1993. Living Within Limits. Oxford University
Press, Oxford, UK, p. 190. 3Hardin, G. 1972.
Exploring New Ethics for Survival. Viking Press,
Inc., New York. 4Dilworth, C. 2010. Two Smart for
Our Own Good The Ecological Predicament of
Humankind. Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, UK. 5Sperling, D. and D. Gordon. 2009.
Two Billion Cars. Oxford University Press,
Oxford, UK. 6Klare, M. 2001. Resource Wars.
Metropolitan Books, New York.
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