A Neglected Way to Help Slow Global Warming

You no longer have to be a climate scientist or an educated person who reads the NYT every day to keep up with world developments, or be a public television watcher who never misses “Nature” and “Nova” to know something about global climate change. These days, you can simply be a New Mexican who steps out of his house and smells the smoke, or an Arizona farmer who won’t be planting a crop because of the drought, or a Pacific Islander, whose favorite beach has turned into the ocean floor.

Climate change is upon us, and it’s unignorable. Not only are there regular warnings about it in the media, but entire TV programs are devoted to the varied ways in which politicians and scientists are trying to stop its destructive effects from getting worse. On “Nova” the other night, there was an hour-long review of approaches to the problem. Not only were the well-known ways of combating the problem mentioned — sun- and wind-powered energy production, electric cars, public transportation, carbon sequestration in both forests and grasslands, etc. — but newer, high-tech and emergency tactics were featured: direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and various ways of reflecting the rays of the sun.

But the program failed to mention an obvious and effective tactic for reducing the production of greenhouse gases. Consider the fact that each human being, in various ways and to varying degrees, contributes to the climate problem.

In developed countries, people use gas-fueled cars and have gas furnaces, water heaters, lawnmowers, etc.; they take trips by airplane, and eat meat produced by flatulent cattle, and buy innumerable products whose production entails the massive consumption of fossil fuels; in poor countries, they cut down and burn forests to plant crops and create pastures for livestock.

What if there were fewer of us? A lot fewer of us. Isn’t population control an obvious way of diminishing the production of greenhouse gases and the warming climate that they create? Yet preventing population increase isn’t mentioned in the standard reviews of how we should combat global warming.

The world’s population of human beings is now close to 8 billion. One study predicts that the world population will reach 9.64 billion by 2064, if no effort is made to reduce population growth. Currently, there are roughly 80 million more births than deaths every year. The so-called “replacement” fertility rate is now 2.1 births per female, at least in developed countries. In less developed countries, where mortality rates are higher, the replacement rate is also higher. Nonetheless, fertility rates tell us something about the global picture of population growth. The birthrate in North America and Europe is 1.7 and 1.5, respectively. In the Middle East and North Africa, the rate is 2.8 to 2.9, in the Arab world it is 3.2, and in sub-Saharan Africa, the rate ranges from 4.0 (Madagascar) to 6.8 (Niger). The average world rate is 2.4

The interesting thing about population growth is that reducing it needn’t take a dictatorial mandate, like that which China tried. If women were empowered to bear only as many children as they wanted, birth rates would drop dramatically. All that would be needed is for countries to provide cheap and effective contraception devices that enable women to avoid unwanted pregnancies. That would be a straightforward way to reduce our numbers, with no real sacrifice required. Death is inevitable; birth is not. Why not just let deaths exceed births for a few years?

Of course, it’s not that simple. In some countries, there are cultural traditions which interfere with reducing birth rates, such as traditions of male dominance and control in which men regard having many children as proof of their virility, and see women’s natural role as solely that of child-bearing.

And in some countries, there are religious traditions that encourage, or require women to see to it that humans will “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. I, 28)

But isn’t it time for us to repudiate those self-serving doctrines of the Mormons and Catholics — doctrines which hold that procreation is women’s religious obligation and that a large family is a sign of God’s blessing? Let’s face it, we’ve already filled the earth and subdued it; now we’re destroying it, mainly because there are just too many of us.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that reducing the human population would not only help to reduce global warming, it would diminish the many other ways in which we are killing off the wondrous variety of life forms that evolved with us.

We humans are not good neighbors to our planet’s other inhabitants (with the exception of some viruses, bacteria and parasites). We are predators who have figured out how to survive without depending on natural ecosystems for prey, so our numbers are not limited by the disappearance of those ecosystems. We kill many wild animals outright, of course, but we drive far more to extinction by destroying the ecosystems that sustain them.

It’s generally known that we are extirpating tropical forests, which are home to an astonishing variety of species, but we are also destroying less exotic, but still remarkable, ecosystems such as that which someone has called the sagebrush sea, here in the American West. Why are we doing so? Largely because there are more and more of us here, and we need more land to accommodate us, our homes, our businesses, our crops and our livestock.

We tell our children that sharing is good, yet we are unwilling to share this planet with all the other creatures whose claim to belong here is as legitimate as ours. Part of the problem is that we don’t see ourselves as just another species. We may fret about the disruptive effects of invasive foreign species in our cherished ecosystems — like the Burmese python in the Everglades — but we refuse to see ourselves for what we are: the most invasive and destructive species on earth.