This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Earth Day 2018

This is Earth Day 2018, although as I've said many times over the years, every day really is Earth Day, because we don't have any alternative place to live if we ruin our home here. And, of course, we are very much in the process of ruining it. The important issue is whether or not we change course quickly enough to sustain our global population indefinitely. The Earth Day Network has suggested that this year we focus on ending plastic pollution, which is affecting water-borne plants and animals in ways that are hard to see directly, but are nonetheless incredibly destructive.

I remind you every year that I have participated in each of the 48 Earth Days that have so far been celebrated. Back in 1970 I was just finishing my doctorate in demography at UC Berkeley and I accepted the invitation to drive down to Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) for their Earth Day festivities (and it was a very nice celebration). At the time the world's population was estimated to be 3.7 billion--a bit less than half of what it is today--but the growth rate was the highest the world had ever recorded. My message to the audience 48 years ago was not much different than it would be today:
It seems likely that if we don't change our ways the ultimate creditors of the world--our food resources, our water, our air, the quality of human life--all those things from which we have been so heavily borrowing, may just foreclose on us. Frankly, there are just too many people around, and if you don't think so now, you can wait another 30 years when there may well be twice as many people on this planet.
Fortunately, the birth rate did drop somewhat faster than we were expecting at that time and so 30 years later, in 2000, the population had increased "only" to 6.1 billion--not a doubling, but still a significant increase creating even more issues in terms of environmental impacts and questions of sustainability. Of course, we now do have more than twice as many people on the planet as we did on the first Earth Day. The good news about that is that the average person in the world is better off now than then. The bad news is that the probability is extremely low that we can keep this up. Maybe some miracle will pop up to save us (and many people obviously live with that expectation in mind), but in my view we have a key list of things that must be done if we are to sustain life on the planet:

  1. Make sure that the birth rate stays low in places that it is already low, and keeps coming down everywhere else;
  2. Move to diets that are more plant-based, reversing the extraordinarily harmful environmental consequences of growing food to animals that we intend to kill instead of growing it to directly feed humans.
  3. Dramatically lower our pollution of the land, the air, and the water.
These things don't require miracles--just a lot of ingenuity and hard work.

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