The world is both hotter and more overcrowded than ever before. Naturally, these things are intertwined.
World Population Day was established in 1989 by the United Nations Council in order to draw attention to population issues. Back then, the world's population stood at 5.198 billion. Thirty years later, there are 7.7 billion people in the world, with an estimated 360,000 more being born each day.
It's hard to think about overpopulation without thinking about climate change, which threatens the livelihoods of every single one of these new children.
Climate change's consequences have already begun to emerge, and needless to say, they will worsen exponentially if climate change continues at its current rate. Effects include rising sea levels, tens of thousands of heat-related deaths, polluted air, a spike in chronic illnesses, severe droughts, mass extinctions that ruin ecological systems and destroy agriculture, and many natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires that will devastate infrastructure and generate massive flows of refugees. We've already seen these things, in the devastating 2018 California wildfires, in hurricanes like Sandy and Maria, in the drought that was a root cause of the Syrian refugee crisis, and in so many other instances.
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These events are only the tip of the iceberg. A 2018 UN report announced that we have twelve years to reverse the worst effects of climate change; if we fail to essentially keep temperatures from rising above 1.5C, hundreds of millions of people will suffer the consequences.
Certainly, the vastness of our world's population is a root cause of this deadly warming. According to Business Today, "One of the greatest consequences of growing population, which is perhaps a great threat to our livelihood as well, is the quick depletion of natural resources." More people means more carbon burned, more resources consumed, more people falling through the cracks.
In a merely theoretical sense, it seems logical that humanity's population explosion would happen concurrently with exponential climate change and ecological disaster, because the way our population has grown is anything but natural.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human society followed a particular law: As populations grow, food supplies decrease, and so the population decreases, and the food supply increases. This is the same rule that keeps animal populations in check. However, since the dawn of industry, human beings have been producing more and more food and resources to support our burgeoning population, effectively placing ourselves at the top of the food chain, subsequently displacing animal populations, and decimating our natural resources.
Now, we are reaching a breaking point.
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However, it's too simplistic to say that the amount of people in the world is directly proportional to the rate of climate change. It's true that the locations where the largest percentages of children are being born are the places that will be most severely damaged by the rising tides and hurricanes that are stemming from warming. According to Time Magazine, rapid population growth will only lock these nations into cycles of poverty, making it extremely difficult for these places to rebound from climate change's effects. However, these places are not the ones producing the majority of carbon emissions: That honor is reserved for developed countries, like the US.
The real cause of climate change is not overpopulation alone. It's the mentality that has allowed oil companies to grow into the massive corporations they are; and that has allowed Americans, who comprise 5% of the global population, to consume 25% of the world's resources, and that has allowed many childless couples in the US to consume far more resources than couples with children. That mentality has led us to accumulate endlessly without paying any heed to natural balances or equity.
Therefore, reducing the population is actually not the most important step that needs to be taken in order to combat climate change. This is because, according to Vox, it's not that the resources we have can't support a larger population: the US could successfully feed 400 million people simply by consuming locally what we are currently exporting. The problem is that we can't maintain the kinds of resource-guzzling, carbon-based lifestyles that we—and particularly, the extremely wealthy—have become accustomed to living. Simply reducing the number of people but not addressing our society's problem with carbon and consumption will have a negligible effect on the climate. In actuality, lower fertility rates can lead to higher GDP, as childless folks can accumulate more resources that they in turn spend on flights and other energy-guzzling activities.
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Though population control would help, it's far more important that we figure out how to re-distribute resources in a sustainable way, rather than wasting such a vast amount of resources like we do in America. In the end, slashing carbon emissions—and, concurrently, shifting our cultural obsession with accumulation and individualism to an emphasis on egalitarianism—is still by far the most important thing we can do for the climate.
Even so, having fewer children and making education and birth control more widely accessible would be hugely significant overall. Furthermore, deciding not to have a child is totally a viable, impactful way to combat climate change (and it's possibly even the ethical choice, given the ecological mess that new generations will find themselves involuntarily subjected to).
Because if we remain on the path we're on? The population will just continue to expand, hitting a projected 8 billion by 2050. Soon enough, natural disasters will result in the deaths of millions; more people will starve or die in refugee camps; and then, as water becomes undrinkable and the planet becomes too hot for any growing thing, that will be the end of this whole experiment called life.
In 1971, the year "The Lorax" was published, scientists were just beginning to sound the alarm about climate change.
If you've somehow managed to successfully compartmentalize and ignore the fact that the earth is literally dying, perhaps this will jolt you out of your slumber: The tree that is believed to have inspired Dr. Seuss's iconic conservation-themed short story, "The Lorax," has fallen.
Image via ABC13
The tree in question was a Monterey Cypress, which grew without incident for 80 to 100 years in a La Jolla, California park until it keeled over suddenly on June 16. Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, could see the tree from the La Jolla apartment where he lived from 1948 until his death in 1991. It is believed that the cypress, with its curved trunk and abundant leaves, inspired the Truffala Trees that the Lorax in the story dedicates himself to defending—until a greedy factory owner cuts them all down, poisons the rivers, and fills the sky with smog. At the end of the story, the Lorax hangs his head and floats off into a tiny gap in the clouds, lamenting the death of his beloved forest and the creatures that called it home.
The Lorax- trailer www.youtube.com
In 1971, the year "The Lorax" was published, scientists were just beginning to sound the alarm about climate change. That year, a coalition of leading scientists reported significant risks from global climate change caused by human activity; by the end of the decade, scientific consensus identified global warming as the largest risk of the 21st century. Still, largely due to misleading reports from companies like Exxon, right-wing denialist think tanks, multi-million dollar denial campaigns, and bribes given to politicians by oil barons and investors such as the Koch Brothers, climate change was delegitimized, relegated to the back burner of public and political consciousness.
Flash forward to 2019, and the consequences of that corruption and ignorance are coming back to bite all of us. Wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and droughts—each of which has catalyzed waves of refugees and deepened wounds of already existent economic disparity—are just a few of the visible consequences of climate change; and the worst is yet to come. Roughly 80,000 acres of forest disappear each day, with another 80,000 experiencing significant degradation. Plusm 1 million species are teetering on the brink of extinction.
If the loss of forests and biodiversity is not enough to chill you to the bone, the effects on humanity have been severe and will become unimaginably extreme if we continue at our current pace of unchecked destruction. Climate change threatens coastal cities with flooding, displaces millions, exacerbates health problems like infectious diseases, triggers asthma attacks, and destroys infrastructure and agriculture. It can cause mental illness and it disadvantages the most vulnerable, threatening communities and nations who lack the resources needed to bounce back from ecological disasters.
And even if you really don't give a shit about poor people, you're still not safe—for climate change will pose significant risks to financial markets, with food costs, insurance markets, and the mortgage industry all at risk. (For proof, just look at the millions of dollars in liability costs and subsequent bankruptcy faced by Pacific Gas and Electric after the 2018 California wildfires).
So in the shadow of all this horrifying information, it doesn't seem so far-fetched that the tree that inspired one of the greatest tales of environmental destruction has fallen. Sure, maybe there was something wrong with its roots, or maybe the excess of poison or smoke from the fires or the gas leaks or the plastic particles in the salt-choked rivers did it in. Or maybe the tree just gave up, realizing that the earth was no longer a place for growing things. Its death feels like the real-world embodiment of the Lorax floating away into the murky skies, looking sadly down on the scorched earth that used to hold thousands of trees.
Image via techwithkids.com
Of course, the Seussian tale doesn't end with the Lorax's departure. It begins when the kid in the story gets the Once-ler to tell him what happened to the Lorax, and it ends when the Once-ler drops him a tiny Truffala tree seed. "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not," says the old storyteller, imploring the kid (and by proxy, all readers) to try and do something, even if it starts with one seed.
In a world where Greta Thunberg—a sixteen-year-old playing hooky—is literally the most powerful voice in ecological activism, Dr. Seuss's message doesn't seem too starry-eyed. Small, improbable leaps of faith might be insignificant in themselves, but they can start waves of action that could be our best chance at launching the worldwide action needed to build a viable (and potentially more equitable) society.
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