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Why depopulation won't solve climate change

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In a world increasingly focused on saving the planet, urging people not to have children simply can't be the answer.

In an interview with the Radio Times, David Attenborough stated that "[humans] are the plague of the earth" because "[they] are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources", and that, "the only way to save planet from famine and species extinction is to limit population growth.’  

David Attenborough

Though, to what extent would depopulation actually help the environment?

Attenborough, a patron for Population Matters, a charity that advocates for population control to preserve the environment and reduce climate change, is convinced that the answer to our earth’s climate crisis is limiting human reproduction.

The idea is undoubtedly dystopian: consider a future where the government has passed a law that reproduction is illegal on the grounds that population growth is unsustainable.

Yes, the idea is, technically, environmentally considerate.

However, it is not humankind considerate; it’s a violation of key human right – the right to reproduce.

It’s also slightly hypocritical of Attenborough to advocate such an approach when firstly, he has children of his own, and secondly, he’s a meat eater; animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to the earth’s climate crisis.

Despite his God-like authority on environmental issues, his voice clearly shouldn’t be trusted.

How can you expect others to make a change when you can’t make a change yourself?

The advocacy for depopulation as a solution to the earth’s climate crisis has its origins in a 1999 Cornell University study that suggested we are more than two times over the earth’s population carrying capacity when certain criteria are considered, such as all humans living in prosperity and having access to clean water.

As a solution to exceeding the target a different study, this time in Sweden, found that if every family had one less child the world would save 58.6 tonnes of carbon.

As insightful this solution is, it is ultimately idealistic.

The current situation of the world is unprosperous. There are families today in both developed and developing countries who live without clean water and electricity.

As well, a ‘carrying capacity’ on the population is unworldly, it reinforces a future dystopia.  

Animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change.

Considering greenhouse gas production alone, livestock and their products account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon per year and 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, livestock produces 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide; if every human on earth became vegan tomorrow, 14.2 tons of CO2 would be saved.

Statistically, depopulation offers more resolution to the earth’s climate crisis, but the concept is unrealistic. Not only is reproduction a human need and right, but coaxing people to make a drastic change when they struggle to make small changes is impractical.

And so, the leading cause of climate change is not overpopulation.

It an obvious contributor; things like deforestation, ocean acidification, animal agriculture, carbon emissions are caused by humans. But the problem is rooted in the human condition: greed and gluttony; both of which lead to overconsumption and thus accelerated climate change.

With this in mind the focus shouldn’t be on reducing the number of people to counter climate change, but reducing the harmful lifestyles we practice daily that cause climate change.

Although lifestyle changes such as using public transport and eco-friendly vehicles; reducing the volume of water usage; and, going vegan, are already promoted within society, further encouragement of, and engagement in these can reduce climate problems.

Hitting people with the idea of depopulation is not an empowering lifestyle choice. It’s invasive and scare-mongering, especially when people struggle to make small environmentally-friendly changes.

It’s not that depopulation is a bad idea to solve the current climate crisis, but should it really be a prospect to work towards because, after all, who's to say that depopulating will have any impact on climate problems?

We could go ahead with depopulation only to find it doesn't work and, realistically, without small lifestyle changes, a half-sized population will produce the same amount of greenhouse gas as today over a longer period of time.

Ultimately, for a goal to be reached there must be small objectives implemented to work towards it, and not just one big idealistic vision.

Image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 

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