Prior to going out to that election night watch party, be sure to check out Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, “Before the Flood.” You have until midnight tonight to watch it for free on Youtube. Personally, after watching it, I decided to make DiCaprio my new hero.
A mountain of movies, books, magazine articles, news stories and blogs have been created and written over the past couple decades warning us of the perils of climate change. Yet, many of them have “pulled their punches” as have many organizations like the Sierra Club whose business it is to protect the environment. So how do they pull their punches you might ask? They do it by not addressing the root cause of anthropocine climate change which is out of control human population growth!
Early on, “Before the Flood” targets population growth and its associated externalities as one of the biggest factors contributing to climate change and environmental degradation. And population is not presented as a me vs. them scenario. As Rafi Letzter of Business Insider states, “Before the Flood” is so powerful because it presents climate change as it a really is: a global threat that links together people separated by class and geography.” There is a point in the movie where DiCaprio allows himself to be brow beaten by Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, Dehli, who accurately points out the hypocrisy of the US asking other countries to lower their emissions when our carbon footprints, on an individual basis are many times higher than those countries.
From the late 1950s through the 1970s there was a general understanding among the environmental and ecological movements that a prerequisite for sustainability was not just individuals consuming less and producing less waste, but stabilizing and lowering our populations. By 1972, the US actually stabilized its population. However, for a number of reasons the wheels came off the cart in the 1980s. Since then we have been busy not only increasing the population of the United States, but have also been increasing our individual carbon footprints at the same time.
As I stated in a prior blog, I don’t know what more can be done to help the environment than have fewer, if not any children. I know that is a tall order because the choice to “not” procreate or procreate for replacement only flies in the face or our biological programming. I don’t think there is a species around today, or has ever existed that would not overpopulate itself out of existence if it could. To not do so requires a triumph of intellect over biology.
As Narain posited in “Before the Flood,” no one need look outside the borders of the US to see how humans individually and in aggregate impact on the natural environment. She brashly stated, “You’re consumption is going to put a hole in the planet.”
In 2008, Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, of Oregon State University prepared a treatise entitled, Reproduction and Carbon Legacies of Individuals. To my knowledge, it is the first in depth study that delineated the carbon footprint of someone in the United States relative to other countries.
For instance, the per capita emissions of a person living in China is 3.62 metric tons per year compared to the Unites states where it is 20.18 tons per year. So, from a global climate change perspective, where would be the most effective country to start looking at reducing population? And given that Mexico’s per capita emissions were pegged at 3.67 tons per year, does it makes sense from the global climate perspective to allow unbridled immigration to the United States from that country?
According to Murtaugh and Schlax, attempts by consumers to mitigate our impact on the environment through things like recycling, adopting energy efficient lights, more fuel-efficient cars, etc., look pretty feckless when compared to making reproductive decisions. The bottom line is, people in advanced/developed economies put greater demands on the natural environment and produce more waste.
As the below graphic from the Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet indicates, countries with higher incomes produce more waste. Although they may be better at sequestering the contaminants, at the end of they day the simply create more garbage. For a country like Germany whose population growth rate is well below 1%, it means they will be producing less waste in the future. For the United States with a growth rate of 1.2%, it means we will be producing more despite our best attempts to reach some level of sustainability.
“Before the Flood” lays bare the damage we have done to the natural world and the ecosystems we rely on to sustain our species. We can continue skirting the edges of the climate debate while emitting vast amounts of green house gases and other waste, or we can punch hard with the facts and the most prudent way forward. In my humble opinion, that way forward must have as its ultimate goal the stabilizing of our populations with eye to reducing them with each future generation. And it is here the US can lead and be an example for the rest of the world.