We're winning. At least that's what veteran environmental journalist Ted Williams says in this long Audubon essay:
Consider overpopulation. In 1970 it was clear we were going to crowd ourselves and wildlife off the planet. In 2004 it seems likely we won't. Because of long life expectancies (which negate the need for large families), the population of virtually all developed countries has peaked or is declining. A study by scientists at the respected International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, shows a high probability that developing nations will stop growing before the end of the 21st century, at which time world population will stabilize at about 9 billion. That's 3 billion more people than we have now and lots more stress on resources if we can't limit our consumption, but it's also the best news I've heard in my lifetime. After developing nations stabilize, it is reasonable to expect that the world's population will gradually decline.
It's a good piece, worth reading, but it begs a question, perhaps the most important question of our day: Are we winning fast enough?
The big picture challenges we face all have serious "ticking clock" components. They are races against time. Converting from a carbon economy to a clean energy economy, for instance, will do us much less good if accomplished by 2130 rather than 2030. We have a very short time, more and more studies suggest, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before we trigger truly awful consequences (that we're already experiencing some of the consequences of changing the planet's atmosphere is now taken as a given by many if not most reputable climate scientists). That same clock is ticking on biodiversity (we are in the middle of what scientists call the Sixth Extinction), water, ecosystem services, soil -- heck, essentially every major planetary system we know how to measure is under severe and growing stress, stress which threatens to grow worse the longer it takes us to relieve it. Tick. Tock.
And, of course, one of the fundamental intellectual advances of the last decade has been to recognize that you can't talk about saving the environment without talking both about ending poverty and redesigning affluence. The latter is no small task, involving not only thereframing of our relationship to the environment, but the redesign of industrial civilization; while ending poverty, we increasingly understand, will involve not only reconceiving our ideas of national security and fighting to spread democracy and the rule of law, but creating more just and more dynamic societies everywhere around the world: spreading the tools of societal transformation and leapfrogging to every person on the planet. Meanwhile, we must do all this while the consequences of our earlier choices, from droughts to dictators, create massive instability and human suffering.
It's going to be a wild ride. Indeed, you kind of have to ask what Williams is thinking when he writes the following:
I envy young environmentalists of the 21st century, but I feel bad for them, too. They don't know what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds.
If only it were true.
Terrific post. I had much the same reaction to the Williams piece. I think he is right to highlight the good - too much focus on the negative can lead to a defeatist attitude or, worse still, martyr syndrome - but he certainly plays down the Herculean challenges ahead.