The global population is higher than the Earth can sustain. Solving environmental problems such as climate change is going to be impossible without tackling the issue.
The welfare and quality of life of future generations will be the ineluctable casualty
Ten thousand delegates attended the recent Montreal Summit on the control of carbon emissions "beyond Kyoto".
That's a lot of people! The conference organisation must have been daunting; and just imagine arranging the hotel accommodation and restaurant facilities and dealing with the additional human-generated waste.
Imagine the carbon and nitrogen emissions from the associated air travel!
The 40 or more decisions made were announced as an historic success.
Supposing this proves to be so, will it be sufficient to secure an acceptable quality of life for the generations to come?
What about the myriad other planetary-scale human impacts - for example on land cover, the water cycle, the health of ecosystems, and biodiversity?
What about our release of other chemicals into the environment?
What about our massive transport and mixing of biological material worldwide, and our unsustainable consumption of resources?
All of these effects interconnect and add up to the collective "footprint" of humankind on our planet's life support systems.
The consequences of the human footprint extend to the ends of the Earth
The consequences extend to the ends of the Earth (recall the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic) and each is as difficult to predict and as challenging to deal with as the link between carbon emissions and climate.
It would surely be impractical and almost certainly ineffective to assemble 10,000 delegates to address each one of these issues, and especially to do so in the necessary "joined up" way?
And in particular, what about the net 76 million annual rise in the world's population, which currently stands at about 6.5 billion - more than twice what it was in 1960 - and which is heading towards eight billion or so by mid-century)?
That's an annual increase 7,500 times the number of delegates in Montreal.
Imagine organising the accommodation, feeding arrangements, schooling, employment, medical care, cultural activities and general infrastructure - transport, power, water, communications, waste disposal - for a number of people slightly larger than the population of the UK, and doing it each year, year on year for the foreseeable future.
Combined with ongoing economic growth, what will be the effect on our collective human "footprint"? Will the planet cope?
Steps to Utopia
Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental "footprint", the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.
Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.
So if we believe that the size of the human "footprint" is a serious problem (and there is much evidence for this) then a rational view would be that along with a raft of measures to reduce the footprint per person, the issue of population management must be addressed.
Let us assume (reasonably) that an optimum human population level exists, which would provide the physical and intellectual capacity to ensure a rich and fulfilling life for all, but would represent a call upon the services of the planet which would be benign and hence sustainable over the long term.
A scientific analysis can tell us what that optimum number is (perhaps 2-3 billion?).
With that number and a timescale as targets, a path to reach "Utopia" from where we are now is, in principle, a straightforward matter of identifying options, choosing the approach and then planning and navigating the route from source to destination.
In practice, of course, it is a bombshell of a topic, with profound and emotive issues of ethics, morality, equity and practicability.
Only the lack of the individual can bring the footprint down to nothing
As found in China, practicability and acceptability can be particularly elusive.
So controversial is the subject that it has become the "Cinderella" of the great sustainability debate - rarely visible in public, or even in private.
In interdisciplinary meetings addressing how the planet functions as an integrated whole, demographers and population specialists are usually notable by their absence.
Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the "global public" to debate the trajectory of the world's human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done.
Unless and until this changes, summits such as that in Montreal which address only part of the problem will be limited to at best very modest success, with the welfare and quality of life of future generations the ineluctable casualty.
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.
Martin Luther King, Jr., May 5, 1966
Short of nuclear war itself, population growth is the gravest issue the world faces. If we do not act, the problem will be solved by famine, riots, insurrection and war.
Robert McNamara, Former World Bank President
Population growth is the primary source of environmental damage.
I am convinced that some political and social activities and practices of the Catholic organizations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet.
Albert Einstein, letter, 1954
Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978):
As we begin to comprehend that the earth itself is a kind of manned spaceship hurtling through the infinity of space - it will seem increasingly absurd that we have not better organized the life of the human family.
Thomas Berry (1914 - ):
We will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will all perish in the desert
John Muir (1838-1914):
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything
else in the universe.
Charles de Lint (1951- )
"... he had understood, better than anyone ... the beauty that grew out of the simple knowledge that everything, no matter how small or large it might be, was a perfect
example of what it was."
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use
Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998):
Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.
John Burroughs (1837-1921):
Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance. Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.
George Washington Carver (1864?-1943)
I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965):
Until mankind can extend the circle of his compassion to include all living things, he will never, himself, know peace.
It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948):
I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon earth.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955):
"Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Daniel J. Boorstin (1914- ):
The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802-1882):
"In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life--no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair."