The issue is very important and complex, but needs to be better understood. First of all, there are different levels of environmental impacts from population dynamics. On the most general level, practically any environmental challenge is made more difficult by population growth. As succinctly expressed by Vaclav Smil , p. Yet, the nature and extent of the population challenge to sustainability is neither uniform nor linear.
It is ultimately determined by the manner in which production and consumption is organized in a given society, at a given moment in time, and by the relative size of the different social groups that engage in particular patterns of consumption within that society. The rise in global emissions resulting from economic growth are due to increased wealth and not to increased population.
The countries that originally created the ecological crisis were low-fertility countries, while high fertility countries are poor and contribute little to major environmental problems. As noted earlier, only one-third of the world's population actually consumes in the global market and contributes to major emissions. Therefore, one unit of population - a person - is not equivalent to one unit of consumption. In this light, population control continues to be an ineffective solution by itself since the problem does not spring from the increase in global population but from the growth of consumers in today's globalized economy.
Secondly, family planning programs are not a quick fix since they do not guarantee rapid fertility decline nor population reduction. The evidence shows that fertility tends to decline only after some form of development sets in.
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As analysed by Demeny , , the mechanisms which nudge lower vital rates are prompted by transformations in the socio-economic system which set the framework for individual actions; fertility declines when many individuals in a given society find it to their advantage to have less children. Hence, the reduction of fertility in a country or population group is generally linked to improvements in living conditions and to urbanization. Providing people with the means to control their offspring is important to the welfare, health and liberation of women, but it does not necessarily reduce fertility drastically if people do not perceive prospects for improved living conditions.
Moreover, much of today's population growth is inertial, that is, it results as much from the size of reproductive cohorts produced by fertility patterns in the previous generation as from current fertility rates. Hence, there is no quick reduction in total population size in sight. Thirdly, fertility decline does not guarantee a decrease in consumption. The very reduction of family size itself favors increased per capita consumption, annulling in some form the gains from a reduced size of the total population.
In sum, the same factors that reduce fertility also increase consumption. Consequently, without a change in the dominant consumption-based development pattern, fertility decline - a process which is well underway in most of the developing world - will have, per se, very little environmental impact in the short run. Fourthly, and despite the thrust of the above arguments, the role of population in environmental issues acquires much greater urgency when viewed within a time perspective.
Depending on development outcomes, current population growth rates can have a critical impact on the number of consumers in the future. The poor and high fertility countries of today can obviously increase their consumption levels drastically to the extent that they are successful in adopting the hegemonic economic model.
This observation is critical, as dramatically illustrated by the trajectory of China in recent decades. Future increases in the number of consumers in such countries will be determined by the rates of population growth in current generations. Thus, the sensible approach would be to promote fertility reduction sooner rather than later, in case a more rational path to 'development' and the reduction of poverty is effectively adopted.
Paradoxically, this reduction of fertility rates is unlikely to occur without access to urbanization and some type of development. Fifth, a moderate but constant increase in population is seen by developmentalists to be an effective stimulus for throughput growth based on constantly increasing levels of production and consumption.
From an environmental standpoint, this is a disastrous assessment since additional people will also have the right to consume. The dilemma is that we already have, worldwide, a much greater number of people consumers and potential consumers that can be supported at middle-class consumption levels by the Earth's resources. For Smil, it is impossible to generalize the consumption patterns that typify today's affluence to the whole of the human species without irreversibly compromising the supply of ecosystemic services on which we all depend.
The problem is not technical progress, whose rhythm is extraordinary and which clearly reduces the quantity of materials and energy for the manufacture of goods.
The problem is that, globally, this reduction is only relative. Thus, the overriding issue is that, in this end-of-century development scenario, our ecosphere's resources are being most seriously threatened by the manner in which industrial civilization's model of throughput growth is being adopted on a growing scale. Population dynamics are unquestionably important in this scenario.
However, they fundamentally affect the dimension and gravity of environmental problems through patterns of development and social organization.
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Even if we had only three billion people in the world, we would still need to deal more effectively with the issue of unsustainable development. One important aspect that has been insufficiently considered in this matter of the relation between demographic dynamics and the environmental crisis is the fact that - at the aggregate level - all future population growth will occur in urban areas.
This trend has various contrasting implications. In cities, people are more motivated to reduce their family size and have greater access to those factors that are known to promote lower fertility, such as education, participation in the labor force, access to services, information, gender equity, etc. Secondly, the urban population is, on average, wealthier and, consequently, consumes more.
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Thirdly, the success of future mitigation and adaptation efforts in the face of climate change will depend very much on what happens in cities. In this sense, the trend toward the greater adoption of anti-urban policies in many developing countries is cause for concern. Without a proactive stance towards inevitable urban growth, slums and social disorganization will multiply in today's urbanizing world, as will the negative social and environmental effects of economic expansion. In light of the above, without major changes in the definition and practice of "development" and of the consumption patterns it promotes, it may not make much difference if the world population levels off at 8 or 15 billion people.
One of the sides of the trilemma will not support the pressure and will suffer a breakdown in either case. Long before these billions are transformed into consumers, the chaos of unsustainability will have been inaugurated, resurrecting both Malthusian and Marxist threats.
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Of course, if a more sustainable approach to development were to be effectively adopted, it would inevitably contain the seeds of fertility decline. Malthus perceived only the demographic threat while Ehrlich saw Malthusian limits from an ecological perspective. Lam considers that capitalism, rationality and technology can solve the problem. Marx believed that a communist revolution would solve everything.
Obviously it failed to do so, but he was correct in assuming that if the capitalist system did not include the poor and marginalized, social conflicts would tend to increase. We do witness today the multiplication of conflicts, fragmented and dispersed protests, dissatisfaction and resistance.
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Growing discontent is observable in those sectors that do not participate in the ideology of the benefits of the hegemonic model. The protests labelled as "Springs Globalization intensified the desire for increased welfare and consumption but satisfied it in a reduced portion of the world's population while greatly accentuating inequality on different levels.
Waves of forced migrants and refugees cause bedlam at international borders and challenge traditional humanitarian efforts at the global level. It can be expected that the voices of indignation will increase, in part because the world has never before been as totally connected as it is now. Enhanced communications facilitates intensified popular responses as well as the formation of radical factions through social media, often dispensing the need for explicit political leadership.
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Information concerning the differences in lifestyles and basic values as well as the depth of inequality are reaching even those social classes that have not acceded to the benefits of this development, creating a fertile breeding ground for revolt. The economic, social and environmental crises reflect a general incapacity to manage the grave planetary problems provoked by the dominant development model.
Humanity's greatest dilemma today consists in reducing poverty and inequality in the world without further transgressing planetary boundaries. The impressive reduction of poverty in recent years, which has also had a decisive impact on the improvement of several other indicators, is attributable to sustained economic growth, particularly since the end of the s.
Even detractors of the dominant neoliberal paradigm have to recognize that, despite increasing social inequalities, economic growth has supported income growth for an enormous mass of people while also shoring up the fiscal basis of the public sector in many countries, allowing them to implement more effective social redistribution programs. In this regard, the optimists who focus on the recent "success" of the throughput paradigm are victorious - at least temporarily. Nevertheless, even the most cursory examination of environmental degradation, of the threats to planetary boundaries, and of mounting social inequality changes this perspective radically, by showing how this development has occurred to the detriment of ecosystems and social justice.
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Over the last 70 years, our system of production and consumption has exploited renewable and non-renewable resources with unparalleled intensity and expansion. Ecosystems are being disfigured, altered and destroyed at a previously unimaginable pace, while the demand for food, drinking water, wood, minerals, cement, energy and so forth expands in an unsustainable manner. Economic growth is essential for the survival of capitalism and even for socialism understood as capitalism of the State.
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