Ending Overshoot
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Ending Overshoot

How to Solve the Global Environmental Crisis

In 2018 my wife and I visited Easter Island. We had come envisioning a lush, tropical island like the rest of the South Pacific. Instead, we found a barren, treeless landscape in the middle of the ocean. Despite receiving more rainfall than New York, Seattle, Brisbane, or Honolulu, Easter Island has no streams, no lakes, and no natural forests. Across the entire island, the only trees are mostly planted and manicured palms and eucalyptus in small pockets. How could a rainy tropical island be so void of plant life?

The author and his wife on Easter Island, December 2018.

Let’s briefly run through the history of Easter Island. Humans first evolved in Africa, and left on foot about 50,000 years ago. The great journey of our ancestors occurred over tens of thousands of years as they migrated through Europe and Asia, and into Australia and the Americas. Humans left western Polynesia on sailboats and landed on Easter Island about 800 years ago. Upon arriving, presumably exhausted and hungry, they found a verdant paradise of forests, freshwater, and one of the world’s richest seabird populations. Human civilization and culture thrived for several hundred years in this environment, allowing them to create and transport the islands famous moai statues.

Yet by the time the Europeans arrived, in 1722, the island was treeless, and local people had split into rival groups to fight over the few remaining resources. All trees had been cut down, allowing the rich volcanic soil to wash into the sea. Without the forest canopy, condensation decreased, which in turn decreased rainfall. Farming became more difficult, crop yields dropped, protein sources became scarce, and the population dropped significantly. The verdant paradise found by the first humans was no more.

The once-lush landscapes of Easter Island were annihilated by the first humans.

Historians and archeologists widely agree that the cause of Easter Island’s population decline was overpopulation. Overpopulation, defined as when the resources needed exceeds the resources available, led to the rapid deforestation of the entire island, and the subsequent population crash. The surviving descendants were left with a barren island of little resources. Multiple nonhuman species, of endemic plants and animals, had been driven to extinction forever. Humans, specifically the excessive number of humans, had ruined themselves, their home, and their environment.

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After a week on Easter Island, we flew to South America. Wherever we travelled, it was now painfully obvious that the Easter Island disaster was now being repeated. A 10-hour bus ride south from Santiago took us through uninterrupted farms for hundreds of kilometers. Driving for hours into and out of Buenos Aires, we didn’t pass a single forest. The 400-kilometer road from Asunción to Concepción, Paraguay was nearly entirely soy plantations. These regions aren’t deserts. They were once vast forests, and now are farms.

When we think of environmentalism we often think of small individual choices like recycling and bicycling which lower carbon emissions. While well-intentioned, these small actions, in an ecological sense, are absurd. Not only do they have a largely insignificant impact on the climate, but they don’t prevent habitat loss. Even if we recycle every bottle, or even ban single-use plastics altogether, the once-great forests of the world will still remain farmlands. Even we could magically stop carbon emissions altogether, we’d continue to lose the physical spaces of nature to our ever-increasing population. All the cycling to work in the world could not stop the conversion of African jungles into homes and farmland. Additionally, forests both act as carbon sinks which store carbon dioxide, and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. All types of forest on earth play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide emissions and reducing global warming.

Let’s present the first thesis of this article: the environmentalism movement needs to focus on habitat destruction, not only carbon emissions, if we are to allow nature, and future humans, to exist. And the principle cause of habitat destruction is population growth.

Every home, city, farm and highway on the planet is an ecological scar that exists where there were once plants and animals. As environmentalists, we are quick to blame strip mines and logging plots for environmental problems. Yet how is a strip mine different than a housing development? Both annihilate the natural features that once were. Both prevent any regeneration of nature. Both require the removal of trees and forests for their creation. Even the best LEED-certified building is still constructed where a forest or other ecosystem once was. A forest being cleared for a strip mine suffers the same fate as a forest cleared for a farm. In this sense, Easter Island, despite having no mines, factories or pollution, is a true environmental disaster.

The landscape is permanently destroyed whether by a mine or an ‘eco-friendly’ housing project.

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One of the great technological achievements of the 21st century has been the proliferation of freely available satellite images covering every corner of the earth. These images show the surface of any place we choose. When we look at images of nearly any part of the world, we quickly and overwhelmingly see that nearly all non-mountainous green landscapes have been converted to civilization. Regardless of the habits of the people that live in each landscape — whether they compost, or buy energy-efficient lightbulbs, or grow their own tomatoes — they are taking up space that used to be nature.

In all of the following satellite images, dark green is forest, and light green is farms. Without humans, nearly 100% of the landscapes shown would be dark green. Light green, then, is not so much farms; rather, light green represents forests that no longer exist. Note that ‘Nature’ specifically refers to functioning, healthy ecosystems free from direct human interference. A city park or a farm, despite having plants, is not considered nature because they are not ecosystems. ‘Humans’ refers to any landscape directly altered by humans — a farm, a town, a dam. The majority of landscapes in the following examples are therefore ‘Humans’ landscapes.

Let’s look at New Zealand, a country globally lauded for many environmental victories. When we look at a map of the North Island, we see that this country has easily cut down more than 2/3rds of the North Island’s forests.

New Zealand’s North Island

Notice the patches of dark green forests on New Zealand’s North Island? The entire island was once covered by those forests. Now, perhaps 75% of the island is deforested and converted to farms — shown in light green. This deforestation is rarely mentioned despite New Zealand’s international acclaim for its environmental measures.

We can look at nearly any other place on earth, and see that, regardless of a country’s commitment to reducing emissions, nearly all countries have converted their forests into farms and cities. The US is absolutely one of the worst, with the nearly the entirety of the Midwest, and much of the South, now being farms where there were once forests.

The US Midwest

West Africa is striking. Despite the extremely low consumption levels of Africans, the populations have expanded to fill a continuous space of countries such as the Ivory Coast, excluding national parkland. Note the contrast between the forested national park and the deforested adjacent land.

The Ivory Coast, a nation in West Africa

Here’s Thailand, where nearly all the small pockets of remaining forests are mountains. Around the world, protected areas are often mountainous. Mountainous terrain is more difficult to farm and civilize, and generally has less use to humans than flat, fertile valleys, as seen in Thailand. For these reasons, it is generally easier to convert mountains, instead of valleys, into protected areas.

Thailand

Cuba, as well, has been overtaken by humanity.

Cuba

The United Kingdom is truly saddening. Despite a lush climate, it’s hard to find any extensive forest. Close to 100% of England and Wales is farmland and grazing properties. Without farms, most of the United Kingdom would presumably be forest, coast to coast.

England and Wales in the United Kingdom

Again, lowered carbon emissions alone are not enough to maintain rich ecosystems. An ecosystem itself must also be protected from physical destruction. It’s important to note, however, that in a continually increasing human population, protecting one area will eventually mean the destruction of another area. Soon, all available spaces will be filled up. After that, I predict, protected areas could be rescinded to allow new space for the still-growing population.

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We humans all take up space. Americans use about 25 acres of space each — which includes land for our homes, our roads, our supermarkets, our schools — while sub-Saharan Africans may use only 2 acres each. This per-capita quantity is called ecological footprint. Regardless of how much we use, we can never use zero space. Everyone needs some space. Even if we all reduce our consumption to 2 acres each, with a constantly growing population, we would still continue the conversion of nature to civilization. Emissions would fall, but deforestation and species extinctions would continue.

Let’s present the second thesis of this article: The only way to prevent continually increasing destruction of our planet is to prevent continually increasing numbers of humans.

Some arguments wrongly claim that overpopulation is not a problem, and that we can solve environmental problems by simply reducing consumption. This assumption is false because, again, even if we all consume less, as the global population grows, humanity as a whole is still consuming more.

Overpopulation, like on Easter Island, is occurring on the entire planet. Within our lifetimes, we may or may not see a steep and miserable population decline like happened on Easter Island. Aside from what happens to humans, however, the natural world is suffering greatly from our growing numbers. Even if you believe that overpopulation is a radical idea (it’s not) or that it’s not real (it is), you have to accept that humans displace nature, and every additional human means more nature lost. If we are to avoid the disaster of Easter Island, where the human population plummeted, and many animal and plant species went extinct, we will have to cease growing our numbers, and ultimately grow smaller.

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Now we know that 1. Environmental measures must focus on land conservation as much as, if not more than, carbon emissions; and 2) Land conservation is dependent on preventing population increase and ultimately achieving population decrease. The path to achieving a ‘sustainable population’, defined as which nature no longer decreases in area and biodiversity, is by simple, common, humane, cheap, and effective voluntary family planning methods.

Study after study shows that women, and men, around the world consistently desire one to two children. Some will desire three or more, and some will desire none, but on average each woman desires one to two. With an average of less than two children, not only is everyone satisfied, but global population will start to decrease. The reasons why so many people end up with more than two children, if not by choice, is by and large unwanted pregnancies. Nearly half of births around the world are unplanned, accidental or unintended. The reasons why are multiple and complex, but are often cultural. A lack of access to birth control is not commonly cited as the reason behind unwanted pregnancies. Rather, there are cultural and societal pressures, pressures from partners and family, and, most commonly a lack of adequate sexual education. Only seven states in the US, for instance, require sexual education classes to be medically accurate. Some cultures may have no sexual education whatsoever.

Most unwanted pregnancies, and population growth, can be prevented through improved sexual education on choosing and using effective birth control methods.

Myths and misinformation about birth control abound, but are not the only barrier to usage. Parents may be resistant to allowing their teenage child to use birth control. Information on where to get birth control can be confusing. Parents may want to become grandparents, even when their daughter does not want to be a mother. The result of these compounding factors is that nearly every young adult in the US, and I would argue similarly for much of the world, wishes that their role models — parents, teachers, coaches, for example — had talked to them more about sex.

Here’s the third and final thesis: Ending population growth begins with preventing unwanted pregnancies. Proper knowledge on birth control, openly shared from one generation to the next, helps avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Young persons need better guidance on how pregnancies happen, on how birth control works and fails, and on how procreation should be an individual choice free from the pressure of peers and society. Doing so would allow all of us to achieve the number of children we want — consistently one to two on average — and eventually end population growth and end many aspects of the global environmental crisis. Openly discussing the connection between pregnancies, overpopulation and the environment should be a conversation that every generation has with the next.

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After six months abroad, my wife and I flew back to the United States. In conversations with friends and colleagues about the latest environmental ideas, I learned of enormous and expensive projects like robots to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or covering the Greenland Ice Sheet with insulating blankets. I read about flying machines to scrape the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and Jeff Bezos’ plan to build an enormous space station to house part of the earth’s ever-growing population. While innovative, such projects are again missing the cause of environmental problems, and will eventually be undone by population growth. Nature cannot exist if it does not have its own physical space, free from human civilization. My peers in the environmental movement overwhelmingly agree, but falsely believe that by leaving small pockets of national parks and carrying our own reusable water bottles, we can allow nature to thrive.

No one sees the connection between the bedroom and the forest.

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