Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Do we have a population problem or a just a lack of discipline?

 A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Tuesdays

Last week, I concluded a series of blog entries on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with the thought that their perceived success or failure will come down to the extent to which they help with the ultimate conservation issue: human population and consumption. You would have to have your head in the sand to be unaware that the human population has grown dramatically; this subject has been a matter of concern and debate for decades. However, public discourse today focuses more on our limited resources or the strained capacity of our natural systems to handle pollution and other anthropogenic effects. Recent studies even suggest the population will level out in the relatively near future (UN World Population Prospects, the 2012 revision). Nevertheless, the underlying concern prevails. It is common that a general-interest seminar on environmental issues will end with a knowing acknowledgement that population growth is the real and under-acknowledged problem. I know people who have chosen to forego pregnancy because of their concern over population growth. I struggled with this issue myself when planning my family. However, today I aim to convince you that the real problem lies not in our numbers or consumption directly, but in our inability to consciously plan and enact regulations to achieve our desired future.

I had a formative experience regarding human population control back in 1996. I was almost 30 and had serendipitously positioned myself as a world expert on the design of marine protected areas, a subject that had gone from virtually unknown to the hottest of all marine conservation topics over the preceding couple of years. Amidst requests to discuss protected areas, it was noteworthy and intriguing when I was contacted by a regional Colombian government agency (La Corporación Regional para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Archipiélago de San Andrés, Providencia, y Santa Catalina, or CORALINA) asking if I could help them determine the human carrying capacity of the islands within their jurisdiction. Carrying capacity is an ecological concept that describes the size a population will achieve if left to grow and thrive in the absence of disturbances. The concept follows from the idea that competition for resources, the spread of diseases, and even visibility to predators all increase as a population grows. If the population is left undisturbed, these forces will eventually balance out new growth, leaving the population at a stable size, its carrying capacity.

In their question, though, I realized that CORALINA was not asking me just how many people could be sustained on the islands. In a sense, the population was already at its carrying capacity. Food consumed on the islands was shipped in from elsewhere and water could be procured through desalinization or shipped in as well. The natural limit on human population in the islands was a matter of taste. If the population grew, people would face greater crowding and its associated effects, such as pollution and the economic costs from increasing demands for resources. The real concern of CORALINA was how many people could live on the islands while maintaining healthy natural ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. I steered them away from worrying about the number of people living on the island, largely because of the insurmountable political challenge of securing and executing the authority to do anything about it. Instead, I encouraged them to enact a marine zoning plan that would manage their resources conscientiously. Specifically, we explored the limits of their coral reefs. These limits translated into trade-offs among competing human objectives, whether between scuba ecotourism and fishing or between small-scale artisanal and industrial-scale commercial fishing.

Though the Colombians received this advice well, a lack of control over human population size was frustrating. At first glance, it does seem like population size would be a good focus for efforts to address environmental issues. China certainly thought so in enacting its one-child policy. However, their success at slowing and halting population growth has hardly resulted in healthy environments. China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world and their resource consumption continues to grow rapidly. Less-authoritarian economic means to control population have been developed over time, and now primarily focus on empowering women. Doing so typically leads to higher levels of consumption as parents invest more in fewer kids and produce global citizens who consume resources at higher levels. Whether via Chinese-style authoritarian rule or a gentler western approach, we can produce political-economic systems that discourage further human population growth. However, these efforts are associated with higher per capita resource use, which limits their environmental benefits.

If population control isn’t the solution, is technology the answer? Here we run into a phenomenon called the efficiency paradox, where efficiency gains from technology are balanced out by additional uses. As an example, consider a Stanford Engineering Department water recycling project I participated in a few years ago. The engineers on the project were brilliant and energetic, and had the tools necessary to design cost effective water processing plants that could work on a building- or small-neighborhood-scale. In its cheapest form, such a system would replace the use of municipal water for landscaping, a major source of water use. I had to temper their excitement, though, by pointing out how the efficiency paradox would play out. Home owners would essentially be provided with a cheap additional source of water, and using that source would make them feel they were contributing to environmental health. For some, the new technology might reduce overall water use substantially. For others, it would encourage them to switch from native xeriscaping (drought-tolerant landscaping) to backyard rainforests. There would most likely be some overall water savings at the local level, but not nearly as much as the increase in efficiency would suggest. Worse still, the savings at the local level would affect regional water markets. In California, water is a limited resource over which residential, industrial, agricultural, and environmental interests compete fiercely. Free up some water on the residential side and most of those savings would be absorbed by other sectors. In short, local water recycling would only have a mild effect on the overall consumption of water but would affect its distribution and economics.

If population control and technology won’t save us, could smart use work? Like we did in Colombia, it is possible to look at the natural limits of systems and plan our use such that we choose how we want to trade-off competing objectives. If we used this approach widely, we would have an environment that would be far from pristine. However, it would provide us with levels of service that represented a trade-off between a cleaner, more natural world and economic use. Rather than capping population to control resource use, we would cap resource use to control population. With smart systems, the price of a resource plays a key role. When a resource is in short supply, regulations would limit its use and drive its price up. The high price would discourage use, leading to a carrying-capacity-like balance. Left without a planning exercise to monitor and limit resource consumption, shortages and high prices will still ultimately limit resource use at a carrying capacity. It will just do so in a way that may not match the attributes we would like from this system.

Moreover, planning decisions of this sort are far less painful if made when resources are still plentiful. Look at any fishery that has been overfished. The real goal of a rebuilding plan is to take charge of the system and deliver a more appealing combination of societal benefits in the future. Getting there once the resource is depleted requires a lot more pain and suffering than enacting similar regulations when the stock is still healthy.

So what’s keeping us from this higher functioning system? Denial and a lack of discipline. We have a tendency to procrastinate tackling long-term planning exercises, focusing on short-term crises instead. Also, for a whole host of reasons related to our psychology and history, we often view long-term planning exercises in terms of addressing a problem. The existence of a problem is something that can be debated, and such debates tend to stall any action. But a long-term planning exercise isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity to work out what we want from the resources nature provides before we hit their limits. In addition to reframing this whole approach in a more accurate and appealing light, we require discipline…to get scientists to engage in useful advice, to get the interested public to honestly discuss and negotiate over sometimes-conflicting objectives, to study options for monitoring and control, and ultimately to make hard decisions for what blend of performance we want from systems that cannot give everyone everything. These decisions are far easier, though, if we exert discipline and make them before we have stressed resources to the point that short-term sacrifice is necessary to rehabilitate them.

The value of this approach is not just a theoretical concept. It was the basis of certain indigenous fishery systems that were proven to be sustainable over centuries. We do not know whether those systems were enacted before or after a collapse. We do know that they contributed to sustainable, stable, and wealthy human societies. And we do know that they required discipline to design, enact, and maintain.


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