Editor's Blog: Final warning

Posted: 20 April 2009

In his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, A Final Warning, James Lovelock is quite clear that the underlying cause of our environmental predicament is the huge growth of the human population, whose activities and wastes are polluting and heating up the earth and destroying its rich biodiversity.

James Lovelock
James Lovelock
James Lovelock. Photo © INS
It is not a popular idea. Nor is his conviction that it is now too late to reverse the process. Gaia must take its course, cull the human population to something like one billion - most of them living nearer to the poles, well away from the deserts that will cover much of the remaining regions of the earth. Evolution may then, eventually, give humanity another chance. (See an interview with Lovelock in the New Scientist here).

Not every one is so pessimistic. A recent study by McKinsey says that if we move resolutely to a 'green global economy', this could not only protect the planet from the worst effects of climate change but be surprisingly affordable. (See: 'Global green economy can save the planet'). James 'Gus' Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is not so sure we can move that fast, based on our past failure to stop the rise in carbon emissions.. "All we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in." But, as he says, human activities are not holding at their current level, but continuing to grow, alongside the human population, already set to reach 7 billion by 2012. (See Speth's paper here and population projection here)

A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
Family planning must have higher priority. Clinic in Kampala, Uganda.© Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
So it seems sensible, alongside every effort create a global 'green economy', to make a much greater effort to stabilise and reduce human numbers through all those socially desirable policies which educate girls, improve reproductive health and make good quality family planning services readily available. Lester Brown explains how this can help ease pressure on the land and on the environment in an article on this website (See COMMENTARY: Why population still matters). The good news is that President Obama has already moved to restore family planning funding to the UN Population Fund, an act that will spur fresh interest in population planning around the world. (See Obama ends Gag Rule and pledges UNFPA funding).

This will be of special importance in Africa where millions of poor and increasingly stressed farming families urgently need investment of this sort. We report on this website on how agencies in Uganda, where population is on course to reach 130 million by 2050, are trying to put a revised population programme into action. (See Uganda revises its population policy.) And we have commissioned a special report on the population situation in Ethiopia, where eight out ten of that country's people, seek to eke a living from the drying land. (See Ethiopia:Special Report .) Action on all fronts must be the order of the day, if Lovelock's grim forecast is to be avoided.

John Rowley

P.S. New environmental websites proliferate, but one we would recommend is that of the UK publishing company, Earthscan. It includes a useful guide to books on the Green New Deal and a series of excellent video talks, notably two by Bill Adams, Professor of Conservation and Development at Cambridge University, on The Transmission to Sustainability. These can be seen (and heard) here. And following Slumdog Millionaire's success at the Oscars, you may like to read a thoughtful commentary on the film from the Women's Feature Service, Delhi.