"Population increase not only increases impacts on the environment, but also affects our civility."
Running Out of Room for Both Nature and Elbows
Woe to them that join house to house;
-- Isaiah 5:8
by Andy Kerr
Before I write of getting naked in a hot spring in an old-growth forest,
Environmental Impact = Population times per capita Consumption
Environmental Impact (EI) is undesirable and so the lower the "number" the better. Given that Environmental Impact equals Population (P) times Consumption (C), or EI = P * C, we can only reduce EI by limiting P and/or C. Lets say that today P = 5 and C = 2. Therefore EI = 10.
10 = 5 * 2
If population remained unchanged (which would generally be the case for the United States if immigration did not exceed emigration), but we double our gross domestic product (at a 4% annual growth, doubling of GDP occurs every 18 years), then environmental impact will double to 20 from 10 according to our equation:
20 = 5 * 4
If our consumption remains stable, but population continues to grow in the 21st century at the same rate as the 20th century (1.3%), then population will double in 55 years (remember the rule of 72: Something growing at X% annually doubles in Y years, where Y = 72/X), when even if per capita consumption remains the same:
20 = 10 * 2
Environmental impact doubles to 20 from 10 in either case.
Population and consumption are two variables of equal importance in determining environmental impact. One cannot deny that one variable has no impact and that our only option is to change the other variable.
We have existing technologies that, if widely applied, can reduce our consumption of energy and materials by 80-90% without diminishing the quality of life. Coincidently, atmospheric scientists estimate that humans also need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% to end global warming, so implementing these new technologies will help solve two problems at once. I built a new house that will use only 10% of the energy to heat as I use in my current house. That’s because it is designed to use the sun as the primary heat source and will be very well-insulated. While my new house will cost a bit more to construct than a typical house, I will soon recoup that increased capital cost through reduced operating costs. We can use the sun to heat most of our space and water and produce all of our electricity. I will have as many hot baths and as much cold beer as I want while using relatively little electricity. The electricity I still need to warm and illuminate the house will be produced by photovoltaic panels on my roof. I will suffer no privation by doing the right thing for the Earth and its inhabitants.
Let's now assume that we cut our per capita consumption by 50% (C = 1) during the next 55 years, but we double our population (P = 20):
10 = 20 * 0.5
In this scenario, there is no reduction environmental impact as it is still 10. Of course, environmental impact is already too great. Earth and its inhabitants cannot sustain that number now, let alone in the future.
Consumption is relatively easy to reduce, as there are ready technologies that will allow us to maintain quality of life and use less energy and materials. Population is more difficult to reduce. For the United States, the only choices are to breed and/or import less people. If society values the contributions of immigrants to our nation, then we must breed less to make room for immigrants without increasing environmental impact. I’m fine with that.
However, the equation described above is limited to environmental impact (EI). There is also the matter of civility impact (CI):
Civility Impact = Population
As a youth, I could visit my favorite natural hot springs in an old-growth forest in the Cascade Range of Oregon and very rarely would I have to share the experience with anyone else (well, I was always willing and trying to share with one of the opposite sex). I could take off my clothes and slide into the steaming waters without hesitation.
Today—while I still don’t hesitate to take off my clothes—I usually do have to share the hot springs with others that I am not socially—let alone intimately—involved with. To achieve solitude—or at least enough privacy for intimacy—I now have to take steps such as going in the middle of the night in the middle of the week in the middle of winter in the middle of a storm—unfortunately resulting in a middling experience.
There are certain goods and services that society can produce more of to serve a growing human population (although increased production always negatively effects the environment). Our economy can always build more houses, more cars, and more televisions.
However, there are other goods and services that cannot be reproduced and must be shared. As these unique goods and services are shared with more people, the experience of enjoying them is reduced. One such unique good and service is elbow room. We are running out of elbow room due to more elbows in the room.
Overcrowding reduces civility. I was in Portland, Oregon, with a colleague from New York City. We intended to use the city's light rail train. I spotted our train already at our station. We would have to run to make it. My incredulous colleague had no choice but to run after me and I gave a 'thank you' waive to the operator for holding the train as we bounded on and doors closed behind us. My urban companion said that would never happen in New York. I knew of what he spoke. I once took the A Train from near Harlem south to mid-town Manhattan. It was rush hour and I and countless others were wedged in butts to groins that, under any other circumstance, would be considered numerous social, civil and criminal violations. One can run after a train in New York, but it will not wait. For my first 30 years of riding the Metro in Washington, DC, the drivers would wait and not close the doors for those running down the escalators. Today, a new policy is in place that expressly prohibits such waiting. That’s because such courtesy now backs up the system—a subway system that is now running at capacity, if not overcapacity. There is no elbow room left on the Washington Metro.
New Yorkers are notorious for their rudeness. While I'm sure I would be rude if I lived in such an overcrowded and nature-free environment, I believe the primary reason for their rudeness is a practical one. The very continued functioning of the city depends upon rudeness. If cars did not slip through on red lights, if pedestrians did not cross against the light, if buses and trains did wait, then traffic would grind to a halt. If people didn't yell their orders in the deli, not enough sandwiches would be made fast enough to meet the lunchtime demand. Rudeness is efficient and sensible in overcrowded environments as is friendliness in uncrowded environments. One of the reasons everyone waives at every car one meets on a rural road is because one might need roadside help later.
While technology can allow us to consume less energy and materials for the same or better quality of life, there is no technological fix to the loss of elbow room.
Humans cannot engineer or manufacture more elbow room. I know of only one technology that can mitigate for the loss of elbow room—drugs. However, drugs only mitigate—but does not solve—the problem of overcrowding. Mitigation is a wheelchair after losing one's legs.
Lead advocate for national strategy of retiring grazing rights on public lands. Grizzled and applauded/feared veteran leader of the Northwest Spotted Owl old growth forest preservation movement. National environmental/conservation consultant.
Contact Andy Kerr
Andy Kerr is the Czar of The Larch Company and consults on environmental and conservation issues. The Larch Company is a for-profit non-membership conservation organization that represents the interests of humans yet born and species that cannot talk.
(Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)