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Some pretty inconvenient truths

Viewpoint by Robert P. Johnson, filmmaker, writer and Stable Planet Associate, originally published on the 'Day of 8 Billion,' November 15, 2022 in the Santa Barbara Independent.

A couple years ago it was announced that not a single calf was born to the remaining 366 Northern Atlantic right whales, thereby putting them in jeopardy of almost certain extinction. Similarly, just the year before, the sole remaining male northern white rhino died, all but insuring the end of his subspecies as well. And then there’s the western monarch butterfly whose numbers have plunged 99 percent in just the past four decades.

These three will likely join the ranks of the “nevermore” along with scads of other species lost to extinction just within our generation. And this trend is quickening. In fact, we are currently losing species at a pace somewhere around 1,000 times the natural “background” extinction rate, all of which is projected to bring about the fates of upward of one million of Earth’s 8 million or so species by 2100. All this is happening because of climate change, pesticides, herbicides, oceanic acidification, our one percent annual usurpation of wild habitat, and plain old over-fishing and over-hunting. In other words: all because of us.

Make no mistake: this “Mass Extinction Event” is the greatest challenge we will ever face, and yet the primary driver behind it, as well as most of our woes — be it deforestation, aquifer depletions, desertification, desperate migrations, plastic waste, famine, malnutrition, coral reef die-off, intensifying hurricanes and droughts, historic wildfires, hypoxic dead zones, air and water pollution, thawing polar caps, homelessness, traffic gridlock, civil unrest, pandemics, war, genocide, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam — is a problem so divisive, so taboo it is rarely if ever uttered: human overpopulation and its seemingly inseparable cohort overconsumption.

How do we know there are too many people? Consider the recent World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 showing wildlife numbers have plummeted 69 percent just since 1970, all while our human population has more than doubled. Might there be causality here? You bet.

Overpopulation deniers will argue that today’s 2.4 total fertility rate (TFR) is half what it was even as recently as 1950. True. Problem is we have three times as many people giving birth today, meaning we are adding to our numbers (by some 220,000 per day) faster than ever, putting us on pace to surpass 8 billion by the 15th of this month, and hopefully to peak at 10.4 billion sometime around 2080.

Now, all this wouldn’t be a problem if our current population didn’t already consume about 70 percent more resources than the Earth can sustainably provide (a phenomenon called “overshoot,” which first began around 1970). Exacerbating matters our per capita consumption is still on the rise, especially as the Developing World grows evermore industrialized and meat becomes an ever-larger portion of the global diet. As a result of this “double whammy” of rising population and consumption rates we can expect global food needs to increase 50 percent and energy needs to double by 2100, and all while arable land shrinks by 30 percent.