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Environmental elephants

By Greg Donoghue - posted Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Hardly a news bulletin or newspaper edition goes by without a story about the environment – be it some more depressing news about how bad the situation is, or news of a technology that might mitigate the risks. But we hear much less about two factors which by their very nature must contribute powerfully to our plight. The good news is that both of these factors are in fact totally within our control. The bad news though that it appears our scant attention to them indicates we almost certainly will not do anything about them – until it is too late.

There is simply no getting around the biggest elephant in the room – overpopulation. There, I've said it, knowing full well that many people will be groaning to hear about this subject, and I know only too well that the very mention of the subject appeals to xenophobes, racists and other bigots. But this should not distract scientists from examining the truth: from a strictly biological perspective, the single biggest causal factor in all or our environmental problems is the exponential growth in the world population of human beings.

Any population history graph (there are many on the internet) will show world population steadily below 1 billion for 2 million years, and spiking sharply after 1850 to over 7 billion today. If this was a graph of any other species – bacteria, say, or foxes – there could only be one conclusion: catastrophic population collapse is imminent. We are fast running out of arable land, of clean water, of clean air, of mineral and energy resources, even if we assume that our population stops growing today, these resources are seriously under threat. But no amount of efficiency or technological solutions seem to had any real effect. The incremental benefits gained from enormous improvements in fuel efficiency, home insulation, environmental awareness, are nothing in the face of our exponentially growing population. And if we need any convincing of this – simply look at the gross parameters: we are, despite our efficiency and awareness gains, still accelerating our emissions of CO2 and other pollutants, and rates of energy and mineral resource use are still growing. Think about that – despite all of our focussed efforts, there are still net annual increases in these measures.


For several years my partner and I ran a small environmental business, where we believed we were doing some good for the world – redirecting organic wastes from landfill into soil But now looking back on it (we've since sold the business), we see that our efforts not only failed to effect a solution, but that they actually contributed indirectly to the problem. Our business contributed to – and relied upon – economic and population growth, and in doing so we increased net consumption, not reduced it. Similarly, energy efficient cars have not reduced our consumption of fuel, home insulation has not decreased our demand on coal to run our air-conditioners. Environmental impact is a product of individual footprints and the number of feet - the maths is pretty simple.

The irony of the situation came home to me last year at a conference in Victoria, listening to a Carbon farmer promoting a price for Carbon, because "it's good for the environment". I was almost convinced, until he introduced his children to the group – 6 of them and all under 10. We might be able to sequester a few tonnes of Carbon using this approach, I thought, but this would more than compensated for by the addition of one – let alone six – extra humans, the lifelong environmental impact of whom is inestimable (and rising).

This might be the biggest environmental elephant in the room, but it is not the only one. We in the West have fallen hook, line and sinker for the myth of happiness from materialism. Our entire consumer society is based on the concept of dedicating almost all of our waking lives to the pursuit of 'more' – more money, more food, more cars, more toys, more houses. And we do this in the misguided belief that doing so is the stuff of happiness.

This was highlighted to me by a colleague from Pakistan. While working in his home country, he would lament the stark and Spartan conditions of his life – where many people lived in poverty, with poor nutrition and limited water. And while he was a relatively well-paid professional, his income paled in insignificance compared to similar professionals here in Australia. And then he migrated here, and for some time could not stop talking about how good it was to live in Australia. Predictably though, the novelty began to wear off – psychologists calls this habituation – and the happiness effects of his new-found wealth slowly began to reduce. Sadly, but again predictably, he embarked on what almost all of us Westerners have done in the face of this confronting phenomenon – he just pedalled harder and made more money, and bought more stuff. Many of us have done this for generations, so it's hard to know when the penny will drop, perhaps it won't ever.

A fundamental tenet in our economic system is one of sustained growth. And this has served us well since the Industrial Revolution – we have essentially egalitarian societies where only a small percentage of the population goes hungry, and where the middle classes burgeon – a result of the constant movement of money and wealth from person to person. But we have made one fundamental error in this system – we have conflated economic growth and material consumerism – we have assumed that for the economy to grow, we need to keep making more and more stuff for people to buy. To make more stuff we need to keep digging up resources, burning fuels, and excreting waste, which is what has brought us to the brink of environmental collapse. And we've fallen for the false belief that doing so will make us happier. It doesn't.

If we were foxes or bacteria, then there would not be much hope – our overpopulation and over-consumption would be corrected in time by nature: our population would decrease (possibly dramatically) to the point where equilibrium would again be struck. And we, having no conscious awareness of what we were doing to our environment – would be unable to affect it, or to avert such a dramatic population collapse. But we are conscious, thinking humans, so there is another possibility –we can choose to voluntarily reduce our population, and we can choose to voluntarily reduce our consumption. And we can use our intellect to discover just how to do it.


We could begin by implementing Zero Population Growth – today. And then we could begin implementing strategies for Negative Population Growth – for tomorrow. But there are ways to do this without the extreme measures deployed by less democratic states, or as depicted in that seminal 1972 film of the same name. One such measure is that of education, particularly of women. Educated women – in any country you care to name – have fewer children as a matter of choice, particularly if their education includes a scientific exposition of the fallacious religious edicts about birth control.

As for reducing our consumption, we simply need to understand the research that is already on the dusty shelves of our universities – we have known for years now what does – and what does not – make humans happy. And despite this, our institutions, particularly our educational ones, still largely fail to teach our children about the science of wellbeing, resilience and human happiness, intent instead on teaching the more marketable industrial skills of literacy, numeracy and technology. We need to learn that people become happy through community, through connection, through accomplishment and through the mindful cultivation of positive emotions – not through the accumulation of material wealth. Science – in particular positive psychology – has demonstrated this over and over again, and yet most people are blissfully unaware that the key to their own happiness lies not in the next biggest plasma T.V., but in their own neurons, over which they can exert enormous control.

So what, I hear you ask, am I doing now that I've sold that business – the one that I thought was part of the solution but which turned out to be part of the problem. Well, I believe I've put my money where my mouth is. Now all I do is teach. I teach and write about positive psychology, positive education, and social & emotional learning to anyone who will listen – including students, teachers, school leaders, parents and other adults. I do it for money so that I can eat, and in doing so am contributing to our economic growth. But because I'm not producing a material product, I'm not contributing to the growth of our energy- and material-use.

Oh, and I've stopped having children.

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About the Author

Greg Donoghue is Director of thinkEd Australia, a private organisation that provides social, emotional and resilience education.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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