Many environmentalists say the source of the world’s environmental ills is the planet’s booming human population. But in a new book, journalist Fred Pearce argues population growth is not a problem and that focusing on it is distracting people from the earth’s real ills. Rhitu Chatterjee spoke to Pearce and brings some clips to the show. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: It seems we’re constantly hearing bleak news about the environment. Tropical forests are falling. Species are disappearing. Fresh water supplies are dwindling. The climate is changing. Many environmentalists will tell you there’s one root cause of all these troubles. There are simply too many humans. Seven billion of them. And the number keeps rising. But a new book argues that population growth is not the threat many say it is. In fact, the book suggests that focusing on population could distract us from the real threats. It’s called The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future. The World’s science correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee spoke with the author and is with me now. Hello, Rhitu.
RHITU CHATTERJEE: Hi, Marco.
WERMAN: Now does the author disagree that there will another two billion of us by 2050?
CHATTERJEE: Well no, he doesn’t. The author by the way is Fred Pearce. He’s a veteran environmental journalist based in London. He agrees that the earth’s population will continue to grow for the next few decades. But Pearce says that after that our numbers will fall and then stabilize.
FRED PEARCE: The big news and the really good news is that women are having many fewer children. Not out of compulsion but out of making their own choices about their own lives, so women today worldwide have an average 2.6 children.
WERMAN: So, Rhitu, does that average really apply to poorer parts of the world? I mean I know that birth rates have fallen in places like Italy and Japan. But what about parts of Africa and South Asia?
CHATTERJEE: True. You know there are places where women still have 4 or 5 kids, but by and large Pearce says even poor and uneducated women in developing and underdeveloped countries prefer to have fewer kids. For example, he told me about three women he met in a sweat shop in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.
PEARCE: And these young women in their early twenties came from three families with a total of 22 siblings between them. And they planned to have between them six children. A massive revolution just kind of going on. You could see it in that small shack in Dhaka. But it really is symbolic of what’s happening around the world.
WERMAN: So that would be pretty good new for sure, Rhitu. But I can’t help going back to the fact that no matter what, our numbers will keep growing in the next few decades and more people means more consumption, right, so, I’m a little bit skeptical of what Pearce is saying, that population is not at the heart of many environmental problems.
CHATTERJEE: Marco, that’s exactly what I asked Pearce and he says he isn’t arguing to stop our efforts to slow down population growth in some parts of the world. All he’s saying is that, hey, let’s not blame it all on population. Look, we’ve already diffused the population bomb, now let’s face the real task at hand and that’s tackling what he calls the consumption bomb. He says it’s those of us in the rich world who are causing the world’s environmental problems.
PEARCE: Let me put it this way. All the extra population growth that is going to be on this planet in the next 50 years is going to be in the poor half of the world. Now the three and a half billion people in the poor world today produce just 7% of our carbon dioxide emissions, the gases causing climate change. The richest 7% of the population, you and me in other words, are producing 50% of the emissions. So extra numbers in the poor part of the world has quite a small effect on carbon dioxide emissions.
WERMAN: A fascinating and important topic indeed, and our listeners will have a chance to continue this conversation online in our Science Forum.
CHATTERJEE: That’s right Marco. Fred Pearce will be taking their comments and questions at TheWorld.org/science.
WERMAN: Again that website for you, our listeners, to join the conversation is TheWorld.org/science. Rhitu, thanks for coming into the studio.
CHATTERJEE: Thanks, Marco.
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