It was the first session of the most dreaded course of my undergraduate career: natural science core. I’ve tried multiple times to convince academic supervisors that I’ve earned some sort of exemption from the requirement, all to no avail, and then curse Mr. Beardmore for not getting me a 4 on the AP Chem exam in my junior year of high school. So, here I was in my first day of my senior year, in my first natural science class, when my professor states that the main cause of climate change and environmental degradation is population growth.
All right, makes sense. I probably should’ve figured this out before she provided the answer. More people means more resources used and more pollution released. Seems like a fairly straightforward, maybe even linear projection.
Taking a minute to unpack population growth, what exactly does this entail? Well, quite simply, it refers to you and me. We are part of the population, and our births mean that we contributed to population growth. Does that mean that just by being born, we are destroying the environment? According to the logic above, yes, it does. My dread of natural science core seems warranted now, doesn’t it?
By being born, you and I will require individually the consumption of an almost unquantifiable amount of resources from a planet that is increasingly overtaxed to the point that its renewable resources cannot regenerate quickly enough for our consumption patterns. Just think of all the items that we consume (or “use,” which is just long term consumption) on an average daily basis: 2000+ calories, books and printed articles, music, television, tech devices, multiple outfits in a day, and the fossil fuel to get it all to us within two days with Amazon Prime. At this point in our civilizational development, these aren’t privileges, but almost natural facts. We can’t imagine life without all of this stuff.
However, we run into the above problem of population growth with these patterns of increasing consumption on a planet of finite resources. If everyone on the planet lived the way Americans do, we’d need four or five Earths. This problem is only getting worse as the population grows. As my professor aptly pointed out, “If there were only four people on Earth, we wouldn’t have a climate change problem.”
To say the least, I found it a bit problematic that the solution to climate change would be my (and your) non-existence. Partially because I like existing, but even more so for all the other humans who have contributed far greater than I to our rocky society. While I heard her disdain for the patterns of consumption that are often used to caricature consumption as a whole, those involving animal products, iPads and tropical vacations, I thought of the other things that we consume: television, news articles, music, and art.
What sets these modes of consumption apart from the others? In these (and, I would argue, in all human endeavors) there is a degree of creativity. There is an extent to which resources are consumed, but what results from it is more than what is consumed and can inspire even more without further consumption. The common denominators in all these creative works, or the common conditions that make them possible, is humanity, its consumption of resources, and the input of humanity into these resources.
Even my professor’s explanation for climate change condemning population growth is based on these conditions, making part of the solution a part of the problem. How can this be so? Well, the fault, like many things, lies in the simplification. While it is true that mankind’s total impact on the environment is based on population size, each person’s level of consumption and the environmental effects of the technology used in that consumption also affect it. It is these that we should be working on to lower our environmental impacts. While this still leaves a lot of room for improvement, it removes the existential question of whether we should end our species, and predicates solutions based on the existence of humanity and its use of creative faculties to lower levels of consumption and improve technologies in order to lower environmental impacts. Instead of considering climate change our fault, we are empowered with the means and responsibility to creatively fix it, and there are plenty of ways for us to start taking action today.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics